Written by ROBIN OPSAHL Iowa Capital Dispatch

Iowa– The Iowa Departments of Education and Health and Human Services notified the U.S. Department of Agriculture that Iowa will not participate in a program that provides additional food assistance for children during the summer, the state announced Friday.

The two Iowa departments, alongside Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds, released a statement that they plan on “enhancing and expanding already existing childhood nutrition programs” instead of participating in the Summer Electronic Benefits Transfer for Children program in 2024.

The program, also known as Summer EBT, provides families with children who are eligible for free or reduced-price meals at school with an EBT card allowing them to purchase $40 of food per child each month when school is not in session.

In the release, the Iowa officials criticized the Summer EBT program for not having a “strong nutrition focus,” and said the program would cost Iowa $2.2 million, as states are required to cover part of the program’s administrative costs.

Reynolds linked the Summer EBT program to the federal Pandemic EBT (P-EBT) program, a temporary measure meant to provide more assistance for families with children whose access to food was affected by the pandemic.

“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,” Reynolds said in a statement. “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.”

Luke Elzinga, policy and advocacy manager with the Des Moines Area Religious Council and board member of the Iowa Hunger Coalition, said the state had mischaracterized the program. Summer EBT is a new permanent, federal childhood nutrition program, separate from P-EBT. He said the state’s decision was “disappointing,” especially as food pantries and nonprofits see a rising need for food assistance in Iowa.

“We are seeing at food pantries and food banks across the state record-breaking numbers,” Elzinga said. “And during the pandemic, those numbers were down because people had additional SNAP benefits.”

State officials pointed to existing programs, including the Summer Food Service Program and Seamless Summer Option program, that provide food assistance to children and families during the summer in Iowa. These programs, funded by the USDA and administered by the state Department of Education, provide more than 500 meal sites in low-income areas throughout the state. The sites are run by local sponsors and provide spaces for children to get food during the summer.

According to the news release, more than 1.6 million meals and snacks were provided to Iowans age 19 and younger last summer. Iowa Department of Education Director McKenzie Snow said in the release that the department is “looking forward to expanding” partnerships with community groups that help support child nutrition when school is out of session.

Reynolds and Iowa HHS Director Kelly Garcia also criticized the Summer EBT program for not providing a focus on childhood nutrition. According to data from the State of Childhood Obesity, Iowa has the 10th highest rate of obesity among high school students at 17%, in addition to having a 15.7% obesity rate for children age 10 to 17.

“No child should go hungry, least of all in Iowa, but the Summer EBT Program fails to address the barriers that exist to healthy and nutritional foods,” Garcia said in a statement. “Iowa’s kids need consistent access to nutritionally dense food, and their families need to feel supported to make healthy choices around food and nutrition. Another benefit card addressed to children is not the way to take on this issue.”

Elzinga disagreed with these arguments, saying that the statements show “our state government does not trust low-income people to make the correct food choices.”

He linked the officials’ remarks to a measure introduced during the 2023 legislative session that would have prevented SNAP participants from purchasing food like fresh meat, bagged salads and sliced cheese.

While that language was removed, Elzinga said the focus on restricting food assistance programs on the basis of nutrition does not help people in need eat healthier. According to a 2021 USDA study, the most common barrier to a healthy diet for SNAP participants was the affordability of nutritious foods.

Elzinga said while Iowa will not be participating in 2024, he and other hunger advocates plan to make future participation in the Summer EBT program a top priority during the 2024 legislative session.

“We’re going to be working very hard during the legislative session to make sure that Iowa participates in 2025 and every year going forward, because we should not be sitting out again,” he said. “This is federal money for low-income kids during the summer. And it’s not a lot — It’s $120 per kid — but that makes a huge difference for families during the summer who are struggling to feed their kids.”

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