Iowa won’t participate in federal program giving low-income kids grocery money

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By Des Moines Register

Iowa has decided not to participate in a federal program that would provide children with $40 a month in food assistance during the summer, the state announced late Friday.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s 2024 Summer Electronic Benefits Transfer for Children, or Summer EBT, would give low-income families a prepaid debit card to purchase groceries during the months when kids don’t have access to daily meals while school is out.

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Families would get $40 per month per child eligible for free or reduced-price lunch during the school year in the extension of a program that started during the COVID-19 pandemic.

But Iowa is taking a pass.

In a news release, the Iowa Department of Health and Human Services said the Summer EBT program does not have “a strong nutrition focus,” pointing to the state being in the top 10 in the nation for high school age obesity.

“Federal COVID-era cash benefit programs are not sustainable and don’t provide long-term solutions for the issues impacting children and families. An EBT card does nothing to promote nutrition at a time when childhood obesity has become an epidemic,” Gov. Kim Reynolds said in the news release.

Iowa would be asked to pay $2.2 million to cover half of the administrative costs, the news release said. The state had a $1.83 billion budget surplus from last fiscal year.

Instead, Iowa officials say they will enhance and expand “already existing childhood nutrition programs.”

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“HHS and the Department of Education have well-established programs in place that leverage partnerships with community-based providers and schools who understand the needs of the families they serve,” Reynolds said. “If the Biden administration and Congress want to make a real commitment to family well-being, they should invest in already existing programs and infrastructure at the state level and give us the flexibility to tailor them to our state’s needs.”

Iowa pointed to several programs it administers, including the Iowa Department of Education’s summer food service program and seamless summer option program, which provided 1.6 million meals to children under 18 during the summer last year. That program is funded by the USDA.

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Iowa HHS also administers the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) and officials said food banks and other nonprofits provide childhood nutritional programs across the state.

The USDA says on its website the Summer EBT program is designed to work “with other available FNS nutrition assistance programs, such as summer meal sites, SNAP and WIC, to help ensure kids have consistent access to critical nutrition when school is out.”

More than 203,000 students were eligible for free or reduced-price lunch during the 2022-23 school year, according to data from the Iowa Department of Education.

Food providers have been reporting record use, including the Food Bank of Iowa.

The food bank, which serves a total of 55 counties, distributed 21 million pounds of food in its fiscal year ending June 30. That’s a 4 million pound increase from the last fiscal year and more than 800,000 pounds over the organization’s previous record in 2021, during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, according to a news release.

The food bank, which has 700 partners, including the Des Moines Area Religious Council’s food pantries, served a total of 661,506 households this year, an increase of 171,285 households from the previous year, the release said.

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Iowa Democratic state Sens. Sarah Trone Garriott and Izaah Knox condemned the state’s decision.

“It’s extremely disappointing that the Reynolds administration is planning to reject federal money that could put food on the table for hungry Iowa kids,” Knox, D-Des Moines, said in a statement. “This cruel and short-sighted decision will have real impacts on children and families in my district and communities all across Iowa.”

Trone Garriott, D-West Des Moines, said record numbers of Iowans are seeking help from food pantries.

“It is shocking that in a time of great need our governor would refuse millions of federal dollars that would go directly to feed hundreds of thousands of Iowa children,” she said in a statement. “Gov. Reynolds knows this is a shameful decision that will hurt struggling Iowa families — that’s why she announced it with a cowardly press release full of excuses on the Friday before Christmas.

“There’s still time for the state to reverse course, and I encourage Iowans to tell the governor to do the right thing.”

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