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Why Some States Are Rejecting Federal Money for Hungry Kids

Fifteen states are not participating in a program to provide meals to school-age children over the summer, due to administrative costs or ideological opposition.

A father and his children collect donated food from a park in Pennsylvania.
Vince Carrington and his two children pick up boxes of food and milk at Elmwood Park in Norristown, Pa. (Jessica Griffin/TNS)
In Brief:
  • Several states who have declined to participate in the Summer EBT program for 2024 cite workforce shortages and the state budgets..

  • Some of the state governors who’ve rejected funding cite politicization of issues and not wanting people to rely on “welfare.”

  • Experts note that Summer EBT won’t just help feed children but will pump money back into the states’ economies.

  • During the school year, the federal school lunch program provides meals for free or reduced costs to 22 million children. What happens to these kids during the summer, when they aren’t fed in school?

    That’s the problem addressed with an expanded federal effort called the Summer Electronic Benefit Program. It builds off existing programs, including funds to feed kids during the pandemic. The families of children who qualify for free or reduced school meals will receive $120 per child over the summer to buy food. “Summer EBT is a proven game-changer in the fight against child hunger,” said federal Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack. “We think that we’re going to be able to make some progress in closing the summer hunger gap as a result.”

    Thirty-five states have signed up to administer the program this summer, along with all five territories and some tribal governments. But 15 states are not participating. Their reasons range to lack of administrative staff to complaints that Summer EBT is an outdated pandemic relief program. “That's just another form of welfare,” said Nebraska GOP Gov. Jim Pillen. “I simply disagree, and it's not doing our kids any good.”

    Other Republican governors, in states such as South Carolina and Mississippi, have lodged similar complaints. The fight over feeding low-income kids – or refusing to – has become political. "It is $250 million that is left on the table that the governor of Florida, Gov. [Ron] DeSantis, decided to opt out of," White House Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said last week. "It costs Floridians nothing."

    Late last year, Florida refused $320 million in federal money to reduce tailpipe emissions, with the state Department of Transportation complaining the effort to address climate change would have politicized roadways. In the case of Summer EBT, Florida supports the goal of feeding kids, but contends it already has the tools in hands to do so.

    “As a state, we are dedicated to making sure children have access to nutritious meals,” said Mallory McManus, communications director for Florida’s Department of Children and Families. “This takes a whole-of-government approach that includes free and reduced lunch programs at school, providing SNAP benefits to families who qualify, and through summer break spot programs. Over the past 10 years, these programs have been remarkably successful.”

    MacManus says the state’s existing programs will be successful this summer “without any additional federal programs that always come with some federal strings attached,” including administrative fees. Unlike similar pandemic-era programs, Summer EBT does not come without cost to states.

    The Price of Not Participating

    Some of the states that have opted out say that they simply don’t have the bandwidth to run this additional program. Mississippi lacks resources, “including workforce capacity and funding,” according to Mark Jones, a spokesperson for the state Department of Human Services.

    “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 [make it] not feasible for Texas to successfully launch Summer EBT in 2024,” said Tiffany Young, a spokesperson for the Texas Department of Health and Human Services. The picture may change in the future, she said.

    Aside from adding to food insecurity for kids, states are making an economic mistake in rejecting the money, argues Cindy Huddleston, a senior policy analyst with the Florida Policy Institute, a left-leaning think tank.

    “A lot of times people look very narrowly at [food programs] and think that the only people who are benefiting are the participants themselves, and that couldn't be further than the truth,” she says. “The state benefits economically from these federal funds to the state and people spending their money at local grocery stores or at farmers markets around the state.”

    According to the Food Research and Action Center, the economic impact of Summer EBT in Florida would total between $388 million to $446 million. “We've really passed up a real, a very unique opportunity to feed children and have this influx of money into the state,” Huddleston says.
    Zina Hutton is a staff writer for Governing. She has been a freelance culture writer, researcher and copywriter since 2015. In 2021, she started writing for Teen Vogue. Now, at Governing, Zina focuses on state and local finance, workforce, education and management and administration news.
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