Governor Reynolds Launches $900k Grant Amid Criticism Over Rejected Federal Funds

More than four months after Gov. Kim Reynolds announced that Iowa families receiving federal food assistance would not be able to receive an additional $40 per child per month for three months to help cover the increased cost of feeding children who will not be eating lunch or breakfast at school during the summer. Reynolds launched her plan on Wednesday to alleviate the increased financial strain that food-insecure households endure throughout the summer.

“Providing young Iowans with access to free, nutritious meals in their communities during the summer months has always been a priority,” the state’s governor said in a statement.

The governor said that she will spend $900,000 on a new grant program to bolster two existing programs that serve meals to largely school-based places over the summer. That sum represents 3.1% of the estimated $29 million that Iowa families would have received directly from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Summer Electronic Benefits Transfer for Children program.

“While I appreciate the governor finally doing something for hungry children in our state, the competitive grant program announced today amounts to crumbs for Iowa kids,” Sen. Sarah Trone Garriott, a Democrat from West Des Moines, said in a statement following the governor’s announcement.

“Gov. Reynolds could have accepted $29 million in federal food assistance, which would have benefited 240,000 children across the state. The $900,000 state program she proposed today pales in comparison, forcing Iowa municipalities to compete for a fraction of that small pie. That is insufficient to address the fundamental needs of our state. And it doesn’t make up for her decision to leave Iowa’s children hungry.”

The governor’s new Summer Meal Program Expansion Grant will benefit schools and other institutions rather than individuals.

“Qualifying Iowa schools participating in the National School Lunch Program or School Breakfast Program may apply as either a Summer Food Service Program or Seamless Summer Option sponsor,” according to a statement released by the governor’s office on Wednesday. “Private nonprofit organizations, community and faith-based organizations, higher education institutions, and local government agencies are eligible to participate as a sponsor for the Summer Food Service Program.”

The state and the USDA jointly operate the Summer Food Service Program and Seamless Summer Option, with administrative costs divided between the two. The programs support meals and snacks given at certain locations, such as schools.

The state would also have to pay half of the administrative costs for the governor’s rejected Summer EBT for Children program, but the federal government would pay for the entire three-month period of higher benefits, which would have been deposited straight to a SNAP recipient’s EBT card. The program is an extension of the federal government’s enhanced food aid to families eligible for free or reduced-price school meals during the COVID-19 pandemic.

According to the non-profit Iowa Hunger Coalition, Summer EBT for Children will benefit 240,000 children in Iowa. In comparison, last year, the average daily attendance at one of the summer meal sites targeted by the governor’s new grant program was 21,557 youngsters.

“While we appreciate the new grant program to expand summer meal places, we know that hurdles to access will remain for families. Summer EBT is intended to supplement, rather than replace, summer feeding facilities,” stated Luke Elzinga, board chair of the Iowa Hunger Coalition.

Iowa is one of 14 Republican-controlled states that have rejected greater federal food assistance, including Alabama, Alaska, Florida, Georgia, Idaho, Louisiana, Mississippi, Oklahoma, South Carolina, South Dakota, Texas, Vermont, and Wyoming. Governor Jim Pillen of Nebraska, a Republican, initially opposed the initiative as well but said in February that he had reconsidered and that Nebraska would participate in Summer EBT for Children.

“I don’t believe in welfare,” Pillen declared last November when he initially declined to participate in the federal program.

However, in a speech in February, Pillen revealed why he changed his mind. The governor stated that he was listening to a group of food-insecure young people describe their difficulty in receiving help from the type of site-specific initiatives that Reynolds supports.

“They talked about their hunger. They also discussed the summer USDA program and, depending on access, when they’d receive a sack of food,” Pillen added. “And from my seat, what I saw there, we have to do better in Nebraska.”

When Reynolds announced on December 22 that she was rejecting state participation in Summer EBT for Children, she stated, “Federal COVID-era cash benefit programs are not sustainable and do not provide long-term solutions to issues affecting children and families.” An EBT card offers little to promote nutrition in an era when childhood obesity is on the rise.

Aside from ignoring the fact that EBT helps recipients better afford fresh, nutritious food (and avoid malnutrition, which may or may not be associated with obesity), the governor’s announcement in December came two weeks after the Food Bank of Iowa announced that it and its partners in 55 counties had seen record demand for their services over the previous 19 months.

“Today, 36 percent of hardworking Iowa families and many people on fixed incomes do not make enough money to cover the cost of necessities,” Food Bank of Iowa CEO Michelle Book said in a Dec. 7 statement. “This is a social injustice we can no longer ignore.”

Applications for Reynolds’ new Summer Meal Program Expansion Grants must be received by the Iowa Department of Education by May 7. According to the governor’s office, the federal government provides $900,000 for the awards. The money is part of Iowa’s support under the American Rescue Plan Act, which President Biden signed into law in 2021.

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