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A New Federal Summer Food Program Targets Child Hunger. Why Are 15 States Opting Out?

Nearly 21 million children will have access to federally funded grocery benefits this summer as part of a new program aimed at reducing childhood hunger when school is out.

But the number of kids benefiting from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s new Summer Electronic Benefits Transfer, or EBT, program could be millions higher as 15 states have opted not to participate this year, some for political reasons as Republican governors decide against participating in a new federal benefits program.

The program is modeled after Pandemic EBT, which helped families pay for meals using an EBT card loaded with benefits when schools were closed to in-person learning during the pandemic. The Summer EBT program, which will be permanent as the result of a government funding bill that passed Congress in December 2022, will provide $120 per student to families that qualify for free and reduced-price lunch to cover the costs of groceries during the summer months. The program has the potential to reduce the number of children experiencing very low food security by about one-third, according to the USDA.

“The summertime is supposed to be a time of renewal, recreation, and preparation, but for millions of kids the summertime is defined by a state of chronic hunger,” said Vince Hall, government relations officer at Feeding America, a nonprofit focused on hunger relief. “This Summer EBT program is perhaps the most significant, shining example of Congress looking at something that worked well during the pandemic and using it as a model for a permanent nutrition program.”

So far, 35 states, five U.S. territories, and four tribes plan to launch the program in 2024, and the USDA is optimistic that more will launch in 2025.

But a handful of governors have said they don’t plan to ever participate, sometimes echoing arguments Republican governors and other policymakers used about a decade ago to reject an expansion of Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act and more recently to look into the rejection of federal education funds.

In Iowa, Gov. Kim Reynolds stated in a news release last month that “an EBT card does nothing to promote nutrition at a time when childhood obesity has become an epidemic.” In Nebraska, Gov. Jim Pillen told the Lincoln Journal Star, “I don’t believe in welfare,” in response to a question about whether the state would participate. Representatives from the education and human services agencies in neither state responded to requests for comment.

The comments, especially Reynolds’ statement about childhood obesity, are misguided and can be damaging, Hall said.

“When people who are experiencing obesity come to a food distribution, it’s because they are food insecure, it’s because they lack the financial resources to have a healthy and nutritious diet,” he said. “Any effort to create a healthy citizenry through withholding food is both scientifically and morally unsound.”

A more universal approach to summer food insecurity

Summer is an especially difficult time for food-insecure families as students lose access to the healthy meals they normally receive at school. Often, food banks are overrun with demand during the summer, said Hall, who was a food bank CEO before working at Feeding America.

This summer may be especially difficult, as childhood hunger, food insecurity, and poverty have been on the rise since pandemic-era services have been phased out.

In 2022, 13 million children lived in food-insecure households, a 44 percent increase from 2021, according to the USDA. It was the highest rate and number of individuals living in food insecurity since 2014 and the largest one-year increase since 2008, according to Feeding America, and coincided with the end of the expanded pandemic-era child tax credit, through which most families received monthly payments of $250 to $300 per child.

The Summer EBT program will be able to offset some of that hunger by providing an option that is widespread, Hall said.

“We now through Summer EBT have an equivalent federal commitment to child nutrition and health that spans the summer months when the school gates are locked,” Hall said. “That is a powerful, positive achievement in public policy. These kids that we care about during the school year are no less important to us during the long summer months.”

The program is open to any family that qualifies for free and reduced-price lunch, and, because the benefits are loaded onto EBT cards consumers can use at grocery stores and other retailers, students don’t have to travel to designated locations to receive food. That sets Summer EBT apart from the USDA’s Summer Food Service Program and Seamless Summer Option. Both of those programs, in which all 50 states participate and which will continue operating, give schools and community organizations resources to provide free meals to students at designated sites during the summer months.

“Summer nutrition programs tend to only reach a fraction of students because of different barriers to reaching summer meal sites,” said Kelsey Boone, senior child nutrition policy analyst at the Food Research & Action Center, a nonprofit with a focus on ending hunger. “Those include such things as lack of transportation or lack of a meal site in a student’s area. It can be difficult for students to reach those sites whereas Summer EBT comes to the family.”

Families that already receive food assistance through the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program can receive Summer EBT benefits on top of their SNAP allocations.

Why states have rejected the program

The USDA gave states a Jan. 1 deadline to opt into the 2024 program after releasing finalized rules for the program in late December.

The states that chose not to participate in 2024 are: Alabama, Alaska, Florida, Georgia, Idaho, Iowa, Louisiana, Mississippi, Nebraska, Oklahoma, South Carolina, South Dakota, Texas, Vermont, and Wyoming.

Some states, including Alabama, Louisiana, Texas, and Vermont, indicated they might opt into the program in future years. Those states said the program would place too much of an administrative burden on state agencies to start this year and would be too expensive to operate in 2024.

The USDA covers the costs of benefits, but splits administrative costs of the program with the states 50-50. In total, the program is expected to provide $2.5 billion to families in 2024.

“Most of the states were struggling to get together all of their plans,” Boone said. “The regulations didn’t come out until late in December. The deadline was in January. It made it very difficult for states to pull together those plans.”

Nearly all of the states that chose not to participate pointed to the USDA’s existing summer nutrition programs as an existing resource to meet childhood hunger needs even though the Summer EBT program will have a greater reach than the current summer programs.

All of the states that chose not to participate are led by Republican governors, and their decisions came as some GOP policymakers in at least two states consider rejecting federal education funds.

In Tennessee, a legislative task force has been exploring the idea of rejecting the more than $1 billion in federal funds the state’s school districts receive annually—about 10 percent of the state’s education spending—to sidestep federal mandates.

This week, after a series of task force meetings, a group of Tennessee state senators released a report that recommended strategies other than rejecting federal funding to seek more flexibility. The senators warned that replacing federal funds with state money “would come at the expense of other potential investments.”

And in Oklahoma, a state senator has reintroduced legislation that would direct the state education department to create a plan to phase out use of federal education funds.

With the Summer EBT program, the 15 states’ decisions not to participate will have major implications for food-insecure children and local food banks, Hall said.

“The withholding of benefits from eligible families of children doesn’t reduce hunger, it just reduces solutions to hunger,” Hall said. “Those families who are struggling to find enough food and live in a state that is not participating in the summer EBT program are going to turn to local food banks. That is a serious challenge for our food banks because they have never experienced the unprecedented high levels of demand and food distributions that they’re experiencing now.”

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