Why some states are leaving summer food aid for kids on the table

Thirty-four states have opted into a federal program that will give grocery benefits to low-income public-school children during the summer. What about the rest?


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Helena

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Why some states are leaving summer food aid for kids on the table

Thirty-four states, along with several territories and tribal nations, recently opted into a federal program that will give grocery benefits to low-income public-school children during the summer.

The deadline for local governments to tell USDA whether they intend to run Summer EBT programs in 2024 was Jan. 1. It now appears that several states are officially skipping out on the federal aid – a decision that leaves millions of kids without the food benefits Congress approved in 2022.

Wait, what is Summer EBT? The program gives public-school households extra grocery benefits in the form of an EBT (debit-like) card as a way to help replace school meals during the summer months. It comes out to about $40 per child, per month for families that qualify for free and reduced-price meals. For a typical summer break, that translates to about $120 in food benefits per kid.

How did we get here? This new national nutrition program is a direct outgrowth of Pandemic EBT, a Covid-era program that doled out grocery benefits for school meals missed during lengthy school shutdowns. Even before that, however, anti-hunger advocates have long pressed for more nutrition aid in the summer to help fill the school-meals gap, as research shows food insecurity among low-income children worsens in the summer. Other USDA programs operate congregate feeding sites that offer free meals in group settings across the country, but transportation can be a barrier and this option doesn’t work well in rural and remote areas. 

(Policy history: Congress struck a deal back in December 2022 to make Summer EBT a permanent program – news that Food Fix scooped – in exchange for ending stepped up pandemic SNAP benefits a few months ahead of schedule. It had previously been a pilot program.)

States that are in: A majority of states have formally opted into Summer EBT for 2024, particularly many of the most populous, including: California, Illinois, Ohio, New York and North Carolina, according to a recent update from USDA. I also confirmed that Pennsylvania has opted in – this is also a biggie, as the state has about 1 million eligible children. Note: I’m told more states will be announced next week, so if your state is missing from this list, stay tuned.

And the states that are out: A bunch of states haven’t publicly shared whether they’re in or out – and, again, we may hear from those states next week – but several have confirmed they are a no-go for Summer EBT in 2024, including Texas and Florida (the second and third most-populous states). In Florida alone, it’s estimated the state is foregoing roughly $250 million in federal aid this summer.

Partisan framing: The governors of Iowa and Nebraska caught some headlines in the last few weeks for not only opting out of Summer EBT, but also publicly criticizing the program.

In a press release issued by the Iowa Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), Gov. Kim Reynolds announced that the state would not be participating. “Federal COVID-era cash benefit programs are not sustainable and don’t provide long-term solutions for the issues impacting children and families,” Reynolds said. “An EBT card does nothing to promote nutrition at a time when childhood obesity has become an epidemic.” (By the way, this is an apparent reference to restricting what foods beneficiaries can purchase with EBT benefits, a hot-button issue that’s particularly popular with conservatives.) 

In neighboring Nebraska, Gov. Jim Pillen told the Lincoln Journal Star his state didn’t need the aid and could tackle hunger by operating congregate feeding sites, adding: “I don’t believe in welfare.”

The bipartisan angle: While these partisan missives garnered attention – and certainly impact families in Iowa and Nebraska where Summer EBT now seems to be off the table – what’s perhaps even more interesting is how many traditionally conservative states are either opting-in or leaving the door open for next year. Missouri announced this week the state intends to participate. In Arkansas, Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders touted her decision to opt-in to the program in a press release

“Making sure no Arkansan goes hungry, especially children, is a top concern for my administration,” Sanders said. “We are leveraging every resource at our disposal to fight this crisis, and Summer EBT promises to be an important new tool to give Arkansas children the food and nutrition they need.”

I asked Texas Health and Human Services about the state’s decision to pass on opting in and I did not get a statement criticizing the program. Instead, the department said it had been in “active discussions” about implementing a Summer EBT program in Texas since Congress authorized the program, but noted that there wasn’t a final rule from USDA on how exactly the program would be run until Dec. 29.

The late ruling, combined with “current resource constraints at the state agencies, the level of effort needed to implement a new program, and the need for new appropriations from the Legislature, it is not feasible for Texas to successfully launch Summer EBT in 2024,” the agency said. Texas officials are planning to “evaluate implementing a Summer EBT program in Texas in the future.”

In Oklahoma, Gov. Kevin Stitt declined to participate in Summer EBT this year – also citing a lack of timely guidance from the feds – but left open the possibility of future participation. As president and CEO of Hunger Free Oklahoma, Chris Bernard, told me this week: “We see a very clear path to get there in 2025,” acknowledging that the state needs to work out some technology and staffing issues. “Obviously, we’re disappointed it’s not happening this year,” Bernard added. 

Tribal nations take the lead: One particularly interesting twist in Oklahoma: While the state government didn’t opt in, both the Cherokee and Chickasaw Nations did. Because they have sovereignty over large swaths of the state, many Native and non-Native schoolchildren will be covered by their programs, including in Tulsa, Okla. 

Chuck Hoskin Jr., Principal Chief of the Cherokee Nation, has posted on X about the situation. In one post this week, Hoskin noted that Oklahoma ranks in the 10 lowest states for food insecurity: “#Bottom10 But, we’ll do our part.” (One in five children in Oklahoma are estimated to be food insecure.)

Advocates hopeful: The folks I talked to in the anti-hunger space this week are hopeful that more states will opt-in, especially after they see the benefits in neighboring states or they feel pressure from advocacy groups and local families this year. “There is some good momentum going into this summer to show that this is a program that really can work,” said Eric Mitchell, president of the Alliance to End Hunger. “I think going into next year we will see more states come online.”

The word from USDA: I asked USDA about the status of Summer EBT and whether the department is encouraging more local governments to participate. A spokesperson said in an email that USDA is “pleased to see the strong progress made in launching Summer EBT in its inaugural year.” 

“The Department has been, and will continue, providing extensive assistance, trainings, tools, and more to the states, territories, and tribes who have committed to implementing the program this year, as well as those planning for 2025 and beyond,” the spokesperson said. “Those that do not launch the program this summer will have future opportunities to opt-in, and we hope every state will consider doing so.”

Adoption … success? On the one hand, getting 34 states, as well as several territories and tribal nations, to opt into a new program in year one can certainly be seen as a win. It’s hard to roll out new programs, especially ones administered at the state level – and in this case states have to cough up half the administration costs. 

On the other hand, though, this isn’t an altogether new program – it’s essentially a new form of Pandemic EBT, which every state now has experience running since the program launched in 2020 (it was rocky, logistically, but every state has done it). The current adoption level for summer 2024 still means millions of kids who got EBT benefits last summer won’t get them this year.

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What I’m reading

Consumer Reports finds ‘widespread’ presence of plastics in food (Reuters). “Consumer Reports has found that plastics retain a ‘widespread’ presence in food despite the health risks, and called on regulators to reassess the safety of plastics that come into contact with food during production,” reports Jonathan Stempel. “The non-profit consumer group said on Thursday that 84 out of 85 supermarket foods and fast foods it recently tested contained ‘plasticizers’ known as phthalates, a chemical used to make plastic more durable. Consumer Reports said none of the phthalate levels it found exceeded limits set by U.S. and European regulators. It also said there was no level of phthalates that scientists confirm is safe, but that does not guarantee the safety of foods you eat…The consumer group said a reassessment by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and other agencies of the risks of plasticizers is ‘overdue and essential.’”

D.C. mayor agrees to implement SNAP increase after threat of lawsuit (DCist). “Mayor Muriel Bowser’s administration will implement a legislatively-mandated increase to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) following threat of legal action from the D.C. Council and Legal Aid on behalf of recipients of the food assistance program,” reports Amanda Michelle Gomez. “Bowser said she doesn’t know if SNAP recipients will see the increase in January as the law directed, but her administration will work expeditiously to get recipients their money, she said at a press conference on Thursday.”

Supermarket giant drops Pepsi and Lay’s over price increases (Wall Street Journal). “One of the world’s biggest supermarket chains said it would drop several PepsiCo products to protest what it called unacceptable price increases, a rare public standoff between a grocer and food maker after more than two years of rising prices,” report Mauro Orru and Jennifer Maloney. “Carrefour, which operates thousands of stores across more than 30 countries, said it would stop selling Pepsi, Doritos and other products in France, Italy, Spain and Belgium. A spokesman for the French company said Thursday that it had decided to add notes to store shelves to explain the changes to customers. ‘We’ve been in discussion with Carrefour for many months and we will continue to engage in good faith in order to try to ensure that our products are available,’ a PepsiCo spokeswoman said. Through the Covid-19 pandemic, a number of companies boasted about their ability to raise prices without significantly damaging sales as a sign of brand strength.”

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