Missoula Food Bank volunteer Phyllis Wight

Missoula Food Bank volunteer Phyllis Wight stocks the shelves with buns.

TOMMY MARTINO, Missoulian

Food banks and programs that help low-income people in Montana are concerned about provisions in President Donald Trump’s proposed budget that would drastically cut money for food assistance programs and change the way they are delivered, as well as end funding for programs that help people pay heating bills.

Released Monday, Trump’s budget would cut more than $200 billion from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, known as SNAP -- nearly 30 percent over 10 years. SNAP benefits are also called food stamps.

In Montana, the benefits are distributed through the electronic benefit transfer, or EBT, system. About 120,000 Montanans — roughly 1 in 10 — get SNAP benefits each month. About two-thirds of recipients are children, seniors and people with disabilities.

For about 90 percent of SNAP recipients, or about 34 million people nationally, the budget proposes replacing 40 percent of their benefits with a monthly food box of nonperishable foods. Families that get $90 or more a month would get nearly half of their benefits in the form of a package including shelf-stable milk, ready-to-eat cereals, pasta, peanut butter, beans and canned fruit, vegetables, and meat, poultry and fish.

Though the proposal is already out of date as Congress struck a budget deal last week that Trump signed Friday, the document is being billed as the administration's message and vision for future spending. There is also worry the proposals may arise in discussions about food assistance eligibility and benefits in Farm Bill talks.

“The budget presents a vision in which struggling families face more and more obstacles just to get by, weakening the very programs that provide stability and opportunity in our communities,” Montana Food Bank Network CEO Gayle Carlson said in a statement Tuesday.

Bruce Day, executive director of Helena Food Share, said more than 40 percent of people who use the food bank in Helena also receive SNAP benefits.

“The SNAP program is incredibly important to people in our community who are living on a very limited income and need help getting food,” Day said Tuesday.

In Montana, a push in recent years has made SNAP benefits available at places like farmers markets so recipients could purchase fresh fruits and vegetables. About 20 markets around the state accept SNAP benefits. Though many involved in that change were still digesting the budget proposal's specifics, they said Tuesday they worried it would limit options for Montana families.

“Cutting the amount of SNAP benefits that people receive on their EBT cards would not only impact families, but also our retailers and farmers,” said Lorianne Burhop, chief policy officer with the Food Bank Network.

“Families are able to access fresh, local food, while directly benefiting Montana producers. SNAP is also an important source of revenue for grocers, helping to support jobs and local economies. Restructuring SNAP in the way proposed by the president would have a ripple effect throughout communities."

Burhop also questioned the logistics of such a change to the delivery of benefits.

“Restructuring SNAP to deliver food assistance through food boxes would be impractical and costly. It would require the government to select and purchase nonperishable food items, pack food boxes for millions of American homes, and then somehow deliver those food boxes across the country,” Burhop said. “The capacity to make this work simply doesn’t exist.

"Packing and shipping food boxes requires a significant amount of time, funding and infrastructure. There is no reason to move away from the way SNAP currently works, which allows families to shop at their local grocery store and make their own food choices.”

Lori Ladas, executive director of Rocky Mountain Development Council in Helena, said the proposal also includes eliminating the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program, known as LIHEAP, a weatherization program and the Community Services Block Grant, or CSBG.

Ladas said the energy programs help low-income people pay heating bills and get assistance if their furnace breaks. The block grant provides the backbone for funding for the development council, which works to improve the lives of people who are low-income.

Last fiscal year Rocky Mountain Development Council, which is one of 10 similar organizations statewide, received $230,000 in community services block grand funding and $560,000 in low-income energy assistance funding.

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