The independent newspaper of the University of Iowa community since 1868

The Daily Iowan

The independent newspaper of the University of Iowa community since 1868

The Daily Iowan

The independent newspaper of the University of Iowa community since 1868

The Daily Iowan

Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds rejects summer food program as local resources strain

Experts fear the decision could leave kids hungry with lackluster summer meal sites and strained local food pantries.
Jordan Barry
Mandi Remington prepares breakfast with her daughter Arya Nichols on Tuesday, Feb. 13, 2024.

While fresh fruit might be a household staple for many, it’s sometimes out of Mandi Remington’s budget. The single mom of three and current candidate for the Johnson County Board of Supervisors said she can’t afford it due to rising grocery prices.

Remington, who makes $55,000 a year working at the University of Iowa, said it can be even more difficult during the summer to keep food in the fridge when her children are at home.

“My children have never been out of food — I do everything I can to make sure that that doesn’t happen — but we find ourselves looking through the cabinets, doing what we can to make a casserole out of canned goods at the end of the month,” Remington said.

Remington was one of over 200,000 Iowa families that received a Pandemic Electronic Benefits Transfer card, or P-EBT, a form of food assistance provided to families during the pandemic due to missed school lunches. The federal program, which ended in the summer of 2023 after starting in 2020 with the declaration of a Public Health Emergency, provided families with $120 a month per child during the summer months because they received free or reduced-price school meals.

Remington bought fresh fruits, vegetables, and other nutritious foods for her three children with the program’s funds.

She is one of the thousands of Iowa parents who won’t receive an extra $40 a month per child in food assistance after Republican Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds in December rejected federal funds for the Summer EBT program. The new federal initiative would provide millions in collective benefits to nearly 245,000 Iowa children and invest $29.4 million in combating childhood food insecurity in the state.

“An EBT card does nothing to promote nutrition at a time when childhood obesity has become an epidemic,” Reynolds said in a Dec. 22 news release rebuffing the federal funding. “If the Biden Administration and Congress want to make a real commitment to family well-being, they should invest in already existing programs and infrastructure at the state level and give us the flexibility to tailor them to our state’s needs.”

The Summer EBT program supports families who receive free or reduced-price school meals during the summer to decrease the summer food insecurity that comes with less access to school meals. The program was being tested in test sites around the country by the U.S. Department of Agriculture almost a decade before the height of the pandemic but is being rolled out now to meet the pressing nutritional needs that have emerged as that aid expired.

The program would require an initial investment of $2.2 million in administrative costs and a continuing investment of $1.1 million from the state.

U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack expressed his disappointment in Reynolds during remarks to reporters after the renewable fuels summit in Altoona, the Des Moines Register reported in January.

“There’s a lot of disappointment in the governor’s decision,” Vilsack said to reporters.

Iowa is one of 14 Republican-led states that did not apply for the Summer EBT program before the Jan. 1 deadline set by the Consolidated Appropriations Act of 2022, which funds the program. The USDA extended the deadline for Iowa to apply, but Reynolds rebuked the deadline and has not responded to a request for comment from The Daily Iowan.

Her decision comes as food insecurity in Iowa slowly increases, though it remains below the national average. USDA data shows the number of food-insecure households in Iowa increased from 7 percent in 2021 to 8.9 percent in 2022.

According to Feeding America, a nonprofit focused on combating food insecurity in the U.S., one in 13 Iowa children faced hunger in 2021, which equates to 68,990.

While food insecurity is on the rise, experts say the federal program could drastically reduce the number of Iowa children facing summer food insecurity as the lapse of pandemic-era assistance leaves more families hungry. Critics of Reynolds’ decision fear that existing state programs are not enough to meet children’s nutritional needs post-pandemic and could further strain community food pantries.

Advocates say summer food sites are enough

In her statement announcing Iowa’s rejection of the federal program, Reynolds said the Biden administration should put money toward state programs like the state’s summer meals program administered by the Iowa Department of Education.

An Iowa Department of Education official said the group will continue to administer meals at over 500 sites in low-income neighborhoods.

“The Iowa Department of Education remains committed to supporting students with healthy meals and food options,” McKenzie Snow, director of the Iowa Department of Education, said in a news release on Dec. 22. “We are already leveraging family-focused, community-based solutions to support child nutrition and well-being in the summer, and we look forward to expanding these existing partnerships.”

In the news release, the Iowa Department of Health and Human Services stated the department was looking to continue existing summer programs and is “exploring new opportunities to address family well-being and children’s health in Iowa.”

However, Sheila Hansen — a senior policy advocate at Common Good Iowa, a progressive think tank that advocates for children and families — said the state’s meal programs are not enough.

The Summer EBT program would reach 245,000 Iowa children and the state’s summer meals program had over 21,000 students eat meals at a food site daily on average. After the pandemic started in March 2020, Iowa saw a large uptick in visits during fiscal 2020 and 2021 to Iowa’s summer meal program. They recorded 61,671 daily visits in 2020 and 63,610 visits in 2021, according to data collected by the Iowa Hunger Coalition.

However, Hansen said many legislative districts and communities are without summer meal programs, such as in Fort Dodge, Iowa.

Luke Elzinga, executive director of the Iowa Hunger Coalition and a lobbyist for the Des Moines Area Religious Council, which operates 15 partner food pantry sites, said waivers allowing schools to provide grab-and-go options and other modifications with federally funded meals allowed more Iowa families to participate in the program.

Elzinga said he has not seen the state roll out new programs to supplant the gap left by not participating in the new Summer EBT program.

“We are eager to see the governor’s plan around increasing the number of summer meals because we haven’t seen anything yet,” Elzinga said. “But there’s some real gaps that exist.”

Food pantries stretched thin

While the governor rebuffs the federal program, local food pantries are seeing record-setting demand, and advocates worry Reynolds’ decision will increase the need.

Local food pantries like CommUnity Crisis Services and Food Bank in Iowa have seen a year-over-year increase in the number of households visiting the food pantry. Spanning two budget years from July 1, 2021, to June 30, 2023, the Iowa City-based pantry saw a 46 percent increase — from 31,000 households in fiscal 2021 to roughly 46,000 in fiscal 2023 — in households receiving assistance, according to data from Krystal Kabela the food bank manager at CommUnity Crisis Services and Food Bank.

Ryan Bobst, executive director of the North Liberty Community Pantry, said Reynolds’ policy choice negatively adds to the “already exploding” need for food. The pantry expects a spike in need this summer when children will lose extra access to food.

From 2021-23, the pantry experienced a more than 40 percent increase — from 549 families in 2021 to 930 families in 2023— in the average number of families served per month. Within the same time frame, the pounds of food distributed by the pantry more than doubled — hiking up to 588,386 total pounds or 49,032 pounds per month.

Hansen, with Common Good Iowa, said the struggle Iowans face regarding food insecurity is real and has worsened by increasing costs of groceries.

Food assistance payments are not adjusted for inflation, and now families can buy less on the squandering benefits, Hansen said. When families run out they will rely on food pantries, she said, putting further pressure on an already strained system.

“Some families will suffer,” she said. “We will have children who will go hungry.”

Since Elzinga joined the Des Moines Area Religious Council almost 10 years ago, food pantry traffic has more than doubled and the council is on pace to break its monthly record by 20 percent in January.

Elzinga said the organization and other food banks and pantries always see a spike in traffic in the summer, especially among households with children.

The USDA piloted a study in 2011 and 2012 to study the potential benefits of the Summer EBT program, which found that the small payments to families decreased food insecurity by 8.3 percent and increased the consumption of fresh fruits, vegetables, and whole grains.

Hansen said Reynolds’ suggestion that the program would increase childhood obesity in the state doesn’t consider studies that show the program increases access to nutritious foods.

“I just don’t see how you keep food from children to solve an obesity problem,” Hansen said. “Many of these children are going to not have food to eat at all. They’re not obese, they’re hungry, and they’ll continue to probably be hungry.”

Iowa counties look to sponsor programs

As food banks look to combat community food insecurity, some Democrat-led local governments explored giving them a boost and asked the USDA to allow Summer EBT funds at a local level so their constituents don’t miss out.

After the Polk County Board of Supervisors sent a letter to the USDA asking to receive the federal funds, Linn and Johnson County supervisors followed suit in January and February meetings, respectively.

According to letters sent to the USDA by the three Democrat-led counties, 22,000 Polk County residents would be eligible, 7,000 Johnson County residents would be eligible, and 4,000 Linn County residents would qualify for the program.

Despite the counties’ efforts, the Consolidated Appropriations Act of 2022 prohibits the USDA from working with individual counties, according to the USDA.

Johnson County Board of Supervisors Chair Rod Sullivan said the supervisors are discussing putting extra money into hunger relief, but could not match the scale of the federal money.

“Everybody will try to respond, but nobody locally has the resources, be it a government or a nonprofit or even an individual, to step up and do anything on the scale that the federal government can do,” Sullivan said.

Application deadline approaches

Iowa Democrats are pushing to find a way to receive federal funding as the deadline to apply rapidly approaches. Still, without support from the Republican majority, their efforts are unlikely to advance.

Sen. Sarah Trone Garriott, D-Waukee, described the decision to opt out of the summer EBT program as “poorly informed.”

Although the Iowa Departments of Education and Health and Human Services committed to “exploring new opportunities” to satisfy family and child nutritional needs when Reynolds rejected the federal funds, Trone Garriott said she hasn’t seen proposals from Reynolds.

The DI asked Republican leadership on the Iowa House and Senate Health and Human Services committee for comment via email and called five times over the course of a week and reached out to the governor’s office for comment twice via email over a week, but did not receive responses.

A bill introduced last month would require the governor to participate in the Summer EBT programs. Senate File 2039, introduced by 16 Democratic Senators, is viable until Feb. 15 when Iowa can no longer apply for the federal program. A similar bill introduced in the Iowa House by Iowa Rep. Chuck Isenhart, D-Dubuque, was also cosponsored by several other Democratic lawmakers.

Additional legislation filed by Iowa Sen. Janice Weiner, D-Iowa City, Senate File 2060, would require free school breakfast and lunch in the state. Weiner sponsored legislation that would provide $5 million to the Iowa Food Bank Association.

HACAP said it will match the funds with an additional $5 million to pursue local purchasing for food pantries.

“My personal approach to feeding kids and dealing with food insecurity is let’s do all of the above,” Weiner said. “Why not do all of the above and then figure out what works the best and move forward with that in the future?”

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About the Contributors
Liam Halawith
Liam Halawith, Politics Editor
Liam Halawith is a third-year student at the University of Iowa studying Journalism and Mass Communication and minoring in Public Policy. Before his role as Politics Editor Liam was a politics reporter for the DI. Outside of the DI Liam has interned at the Cedar Rapids Gazette and the Southeast Iowa Union. This is his second year working for the DI.
Roxy Ekberg
Roxy Ekberg, Politics Reporter
Roxy Ekberg is a first year at the University of Iowa. In the Honors Program, she is double majoring in journalism and political science with a minor in Spanish. Prior to her role as a politics reporter, she worked news reporter at the Daily Iowan and worked at her local newspaper The Wakefield Republican.