Anti-hunger advocates gathered in the Iowa Capitol rotunda Wednesday to call on lawmakers to accept federal food assistance for low-income kids in the summer.
The Summer EBT program would provide an extra $120 of food aid over the summer for about 240,000 Iowa kids who qualify for free and reduced price school lunch.
Republican Gov. Kim Reynolds announced last month ahead of a Jan. 1 deadline that Iowa will not participate. Democrats in the Iowa Senate have since introduced legislation to require the state to accept the food aid.
Mandi Remington of Iowa City urged the Legislature to pass the bill. She said she barely makes enough money to support her three kids on her own, and the pandemic version of this program helped her a lot.
“So we find ourselves stretching food at the end of the month,” Remington said. “That pandemic EBT made a really big difference in that, in allowing us to continue having fresh foods rather than just struggling with what we could throw together out of cans in the last week or so of every month.”
The federal government decided to fund a permanent version of the program, and 35 states have said they intend to join it.
The approximately $29 million in food assistance for Iowa would be fully funded by the federal government, but the state would pay part of the administrative costs. State officials estimated that would be about $2.2 million for the first year.
One reason Reynolds gave for not joining the program is that “COVID-era cash benefit programs are not sustainable.”
Anne Discher, executive director of Common Good Iowa, said the administrative costs would be less than 1% of the state’s expected budget surplus.
“In return, families of 240,000 Iowa kids in all corners of the state would have extra resources to put food on the table,” she said. “And that $29 million would quickly enter the state economy.”
State officials have pointed to an existing summer meal program that provides lunch to low-income kids when they’re not in school. But advocates said there are whole counties in Iowa that don’t have access to those meals.
Matt Unger, CEO of the Des Moines Area Religious Council, said it’s “confounding” that the state is turning away resources when the group’s 14 food pantries have seen record-breaking need month after month. He said November was the busiest month in their nearly 50-year history, and more than a third of the people who received food there were kids.
“We have unfortunately reached a point that is simply unsustainable. We have breached well beyond the normal,” Unger said. “If this were a weather situation, we would be declaring this a disaster, and that is how we need to act in response to these historic numbers.”
He urged Iowa leaders to join anti-hunger advocates in trying to stop what he called a flood of food insecurity.
Iowa Hunger Coalition Chair Luke Elzinga said the group launched an online petition to try to push lawmakers to join the Summer EBT program.
Last week on IPR’s River to River, House Speaker Pat Grassley, R-New Hartford, said he supported Reynolds’ decision to not take additional food assistance.
“One of the things we’re seeing more and more that’s going on at the state level is a continued, what I would call, dangling of money…with such strings attached that make it very impossible for states that are each different to run their own program,” he said.
Grassley said if lawmakers are going to take action related to food security, he would rather do that at the state level rather than join a federal program.