State opens more than 60 summer meal sites for kids

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(Photo by Amanda Mills/Centers for Disease Control and Prevention)
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Critics argue the $900,000 effort falls short

By Jack O’connor, Iowa Capital Dispatch

School districts and community groups will establish over 60 new meal sites to feed children during the summer, paid for by about $900,000 in grants, the Iowa Department of Education announced.

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Growing the Summer Meal Program Expansion Grant is an alternative to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) Summer Electronic Benefits Transfer for Children program, also known as summer EBT, which Gov. Kim Reynolds declined to join. 

“We commend the awardees for their leadership in growing the reach and impact of these programs, providing children with no-cost, healthy meal options in enriching environments this summer and beyond,” Iowa Department of Education Director McKenzie Snow said in a statement.

State officials said the USDA’s program was not the best way to address food insecurity in the state, citing the estimated $2.2 million price tag in administrative costs for the state and lack of nutritional focus. 

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“With the Summer Meal Program Expansion Grant, we will expand these well-established programs across our state to ensure Iowa’s youth have meals that are healthy and use local community farms and vendors when possible,” Reynolds said in an April news release.

Some Democratic lawmakers and food assistance activists argue more could have been done if Iowa was in the USDA’s program.

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Luke Elzinga, board chair of the Iowa Hunger Coalition said the program falls flat given the budget surplus and the amount of money summer EBT offered.

“It’s going to do positive things but it is nowhere near what we need to be doing. And it falls very short of what summer EBT could be doing for Iowa’s kids,” Elzinga said.

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Around half of the new sites will be at schools with the other half located in libraries, parks, apartments and more.

Depending on the site, kids are required to either eat the food there, take it to go or a hybrid of the two. Not all rural areas have a nearby meal site, which presents a barrier to families who don’t have time to drive to meal sites every day, critics point out.

Under summer EBT, a parent would receive an EBT card worth $40 per month per child for food assistance at participating stores during the summer.

Officials have yet to release how many of last year’s 500-plus meal sites will return for 2024. Elzinga said that based on the number of sites last year and the new sites this year, he expects about half of school districts will still not have a meal site.

“There are going to be hundreds of thousands of kids in the state of Iowa who could have been receiving $120 in benefits this summer and are not because of a choice our governor made,” Elzinga said.

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