Ag Policy Blog

Maybe School Children Need Their Own Lobby Groups for Summer EBT

Chris Clayton
By  Chris Clayton , DTN Ag Policy Editor
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A shopper in a local grocery aisle. A new federal program will extend Summer EBT for low-income school children. Governors in at least some states are opting out. (DTN file photo)

Editor's note: This article has been updated.

How fair would it be if a farmer in Iowa or Nebraska received a new aid program approved by Congress, but a farmer in the same circumstance in Missouri or Kansas wasn't eligible -- only because the governor doesn't believe in "welfare?"

And how would the American Farm Bureau Federation, National Farmers Union and other farm groups react if governors just decided to opt out of a new farm program approved by Congress?

There would be an all-out blitz from AFBF, NFU, NCGA, ASA, NAWG, NGFA and each of their state affiliates to force these governors to reconsider. That's what would happen. The pressure from farm groups would be relentless.

School children from low-income families don't have that kind of lobbying firepower. And it's starting to show.

Reports are piling up about governors choosing to opt out of a new nutrition program for low-income public-school children, Summer Electronic Benefit Transfer, or "Summer EBT." Governors so far have opted not to offer the program to families with roughly 6.9 million children.

The program was started during the pandemic, giving families $40 a month for each low-income child for groceries. Essentially, Summer EBT operates a great deal like the debit cards for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP). An estimated 29 million nationally qualify for the program.

Reporter Helena Bottemiller Evich, who operates a policy wonk newsletter called Food Fix, explains that the permanent Summer EBT was a negotiated tradeoff in Congress in summer 2022 for ending overall higher SNAP benefits as pandemic aid wound down. Congress agreed, providing the parents of low-income children benefits to buy food at grocery stores over the summer to make up for the loss of in-school meals -- about $120 per child over three months. The move also was done, in part, as an effort to update child nutrition programs for the first time in a decade, Bottemiller Evich explained.

See, Food Fix…

At least 34 states have opted into the program, but some governors also are making a point of opting out.

"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," Iowa Republican Gov. Kim Reynolds said in a December news release when Reynolds office made it clear Iowa children don't need Summer EBT.

Iowa has roughly 200,000 children eligible for Summer EBT, according to a spreadsheet on the Iowa Department of Education website showing free and reduced lunches by school district. There are several school districts in Iowa where 80%-95% of the children are eligible for free or reduced lunches.

Nebraska Gov. Jim Pillen followed suit, saying it would cost his state about $300,000 to implement a program that would generate $18 million in summer food payments to roughly 150,000 children.

"COVID-19 is over and Nebraska taxpayers expect that pandemic-era government relief programs will end too," Pillen stated, after telling local media he doesn't believe in welfare.

Pillen's office said Nebraska will continue to participate in the USDA Summer Food Services Program, which requires kids to be able to attend approved programs to participate.

A line of states with other Republican governors started opting out as well.

-In Oklahoma, that's 403,000 children who won't receive benefits. Yet, at least some Oklahoma-based Tribes are opting into the program.

-Mississippi's Department of Human Services responded to DTN that DHS and the state's Department of Education "lack the resources, including workforce capacity and funding to support a Summer EBT Program." About 70% of Mississippi school children, or more than 320,000 kids, qualify to free or reduced lunches.

-South Dakota opted out even though about 30% of children in the state would qualify.

-Georgia, according to 11 Alive TV, opted out of the program, which would aid roughly 1 million children. A spokesman for Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp offered a similar complaint to Reynolds. "This federal COVID-era EBT program not only lacks basic nutritional requirements and sustainability but fails to address the mission of improving the health and wellness of our children," said Kemp spokesman Garrison Douglas.

-Florida is passing up on $248 million, which would help feed roughly 2 million children in the state.

-Texas has as many as 2.8 million children that could be left out of Summer EBT, or an estimated $336 million passed on. Groups that backed the program were not only child and hunger advocates, but retailers such as Walmart, according to Texas Public Radio.

According to USDA's website, seven other states are not on the list for Summer EBT. They include Alaska, Alabama, Idaho, Louisiana, South Carolina, Vermont and Wyoming.

Bottemiller Evich reported USDA plans to update the website with more state listings. She also indicated Pennsylvania has filed the paperwork, but the state is not listed on USDA's website.

USDA's press office did not respond to questions from DTN about the Summer EBT program.

Looking at childhood poverty for some of these states, Mississippi has the highest poverty rate in the country for children at 27.1%, according to USDA figures from 2021. Alabama has a 22.7% poverty rate for children under 18. Child poverty in Georgia and Oklahoma is at 20.5% for both states. Texas is 19.5%; and Florida is 18.4%.

The national poverty rate for children is 16.9%, meaning food security is a bigger problem for children in each of these states.

The poverty rate for children in South Dakota is 14.4%. Iowa comes in at 12.4% and Nebraska at 12.1%.

In Alabama, the decision impacts an estimated 530,000 children. When Alabama officials last year announced an extension of Summer EBT for pandemic benefits, the state's director of the Department of Human Resources explained the importance of the program.

"Inflation has transformed each grocery trip into a balancing act for low-income families struggling to afford food for their children on top of other costs like housing and transportation," said Alabama DHR Commissioner Nancy Buckner. "Every dollar of support from programs like P-EBT strengthens their spending power and weakens the prospect of hunger, while promoting nutritious meals for children."

Arkansas Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders chose to join the new program, citing that nutrition is critical for children to thrive and she and her staff prefer the Summer EBT. "Making sure no Arkansan goes hungry, especially children, is a top concern for my administration," Huckabee Sanders said. "We are leveraging every resource at our disposal to fight this crisis, and Summer EBT promises to be an important new tool to give Arkansas children the food and nutrition they need. I am thankful to Senator Boozman for his leadership on this issue and to our many stakeholders like the Hunger Alliance. We will continue to engage with our partners in the public and private sector to reduce food insecurity across the state."

Sen. John Boozman, R-Ark., ranking member of the U.S. Senate Agriculture Committee, was also quoted in the Arkansas news release as well. He indicated the Summer EBT was a better option than the summer meal programs advocated by Nebraska. "Nutrition is critical to the ability of youth to thrive in and out of the classroom. My colleagues and I dedicated a lot of time and effort toward modernizing the outdated summer meals program with the help of Natural State nutrition advocates to ensure it serves more children in need by offering states multiple options--including a summer EBT program--to help tackle this challenge," Boozman said. "I am extremely pleased Arkansas is utilizing this promising new tool we added to the toolbox for states to address food insecurity. I appreciate the Governor's commitment to implement the summer EBT program so children have the food they need to succeed."

USDA's 2024 Summer EBT States…

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5/29/2020 | 11:23 AM CDT