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A summer food assistance program for kids started this year, but 13 states declined the funds

Onion and garlic produce at a grocery store in Fairfax, Virginia, on March 3, 2011. USDA Photo by Lance Cheung.
Lance Chueng
/
U.S. Department of Agriculture
People with SUN Bucks can buy produce, meat, fish, dairy products, bread, cereals, snack foods and non-alcoholic drinks.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s SUN Bucks doles out $40 per month over the summer for each eligible child. This is the first year for the program, and it's expected to reach about 21 million kids. Yet 13 states, including Oklahoma and Iowa, turned down the funding.

Ashton Leach’s three daughters like to eat fruit bowls and smoothies made with milk, yogurt and whatever fruit is in the house.

This summer Leach and her husband know they’ll be able to afford fresh fruit, because they’re participating in the SUN Bucks program. Formally called Summer EBT, it provides $40 per child per month for groceries to eligible families over the three summer months.

“So $40 doesn't really sound like a lot. And it's really not a lot when you break it down,” Leach said. “But that's 40 extra dollars that you don't have to spend.”

Leach, her husband and their three young daughters live in the small town of Peggs, Oklahoma, in the Cherokee Nation. If they lived outside a tribal area, they wouldn’t have access to SUN Bucks.

The program, new this year, is administered by the U.S. Department of Agriculture and expected to serve close to 21 million children with nearly $2.5 billion in grocery benefits. Yet 13 states, including Oklahoma, Iowa and South Dakota, turned down the federal funding.

In Oklahoma, the Cherokee and Chickasaw Nations instead claimed the federal money and are administering the program. Cherokee Nation Principal Chief Chuck Hoskin Jr. said he found the state’s decision “bewildering.”

“Once we learned that the governor rejected these dollars, it became clear that there would be an increased burden upon tribes,” Hoskin said. “But it was a burden that we were willing to bear as long as the federal resources were available.”

Anna Pope
/
Harvest Public Media
Principal Chief Chuck Hoskin Jr. signs papers at his desk. "It makes me proud that we are able to lead on this issue not only in Summer EBT but other issues that relate to food insecurity and food sovereignty. But it also means that we're doing exactly what the Cherokee people have asked us to do," Hoskin said.

The summer gap

On an average school day, about 30 million kids eat lunch at school, with some eating more than one meal. More than half of those kids are on free and reduced lunch, according to Cindy Long, the administrator of the USDA Food and Nutrition Service.

“When school ends, suddenly families are faced with two or maybe even more meals a day being gone five days a week,” Long said. “Which obviously puts the kids at much greater risk of hunger, of poorer nutritional quality and frankly, puts a tremendous strain on family budgets.”

For decades, the USDA has had a summer food service program, which provides meals in summer settings where kids gather together, like rec programs and summer education programs.

“But it’s only historically, despite best efforts, been able to reach about 1 in 6 of the kids who receive free or reduced price school meals,” Long said.

Officials knew more was needed to make up the food gap for children, and the SUN Bucks pilot project started in 2011.

“It's been shown to be very effective at reducing hunger and improving kids' nutrition during the summer,” Long said.

Families with school-age kids eligible for programs such as free and reduced lunch and the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP, qualify for SUN Bucks.

The benefit cost – meaning the money going toward families – and half of the administrative cost are federally funded. States, tribal nations and territories must pay the other half of the administrative cost.

Declining the funding

Almost 13% of U.S. households were food insecure at some point in 2022, according to the USDA.

Of the 13 states declining to participate in the program, five of them — Texas, Oklahoma, Mississippi, Alabama and South Carolina — are in the top 10 hungriest states in the U.S., according to Feed the Children. All 13 states are led by Republican governors.

Oklahoma Gov. Kevin Stitt’s office told media outlets in January that the state opted out of the program because of uncertainty on how the program will be administered.

“It’s not reasonable to think that kids are going to go hungry in the state of Oklahoma this summer because we’re not opting into a brand-new Biden administration federal program,” Stitt told the nonprofit news outlet Oklahoma Voice.

In a recent email, a spokesperson for the governor’s office said the Oklahoma Department of Human Services didn’t have enough information about program costs before the Jan. 1 deadline to submit a letter of intent. The spokesperson also said Oklahoma spends roughly $2 billion on food distribution across the state.

In Iowa, Gov. Kim Reynolds said in a press release that the Iowa Department of Health and Human Services and the Iowa Department of Education have existing programs that work with community-based providers and schools who know the needs of their community.

“Federal COVID-era cash benefit programs are not sustainable and don’t provide long-term solutions for the issues impacting children and families,” Reynolds said in the press release. “An EBT card does nothing to promote nutrition at a time when childhood obesity has become an epidemic.”

In Nebraska, Republican Gov. Jim Pillen at first declined the federal dollars and reiterated the decision in December.

“The on-site aspect of SFSB (USDA’s Summer Food Services Program) also allows providers to spot more serious issues like malnutrition, neglect and abuse – which are often missed when children are out of school during the summer months,” Pillen said in a press release.

But ultimately, the state ended up accepting the funds. Pillen announced the “Nebraska Solution.” A spokesperson for Pillen’s office said the Nebraska Department of Health and Human Services said it allows the state to accept the SUN Bucks funding and ensure the needs of children and families are met.

Kelsey Boone, a senior analyst at the Food Research and Action Center, said if all states and territories participated in the program, almost 10 million more children would have been reached this summer. But she said there were some legitimate reasons for states to opt out.

“We also know that there were a lot of barriers for some states to participate, including that 50% administrative match that is required for the Summer EBT program, as well as things such as resource constraints, and a projected level of effort needed to implement the program,” Boone said.

She said her organization is excited to see the 37 states take part in the program and hopes to see the whole nation on board next year.

“I can't reiterate enough how much the politics of this program have been blown out of proportion and it's not a political issue,” Boone said. “Children are hungry. They need to eat. This program provides them a way to eat.”

Anna Pope
/
Harvest Public Media
Cherokee Nation Principal Chief Chuck Hoskin Jr. said the SUN Bucks program is appealing, because it gives people a degree of choice, the money is spent locally, and it provides support to people who need it.

Opting in

For some of the states that did opt in, there have been delays in funding.

For instance, in Connecticut officials planned to roll out the program in June, but the payments are delayed. Families in Arkansas and Kansas are expected to get payments starting in July. Officials in several states say standing up a new program can take time.

In Missouri, families may not get the summer payments until fall, because funding for the program wasn’t approved until May.

Still, advocates are glad to be getting the program.

“So ultimately, I'm hopeful that we can work out all the kinks now, that we can get a system in place,” said Christine Woody, food security policy manager at nonprofit advocacy organization Empower Missouri.

She said Missouri is ranked 10th in the nation for hunger.

Woody said a lot of places where meals are served are not accessible to rural communities, so a direct benefit like SUN Bucks helps. While Missouri has large urban cores, much of the state is rural.

“I think a lot of the challenge with the communication on the idea of food insecurity, I think a lot of people are under the misconception that it's an urban problem, right?” Woody said.

Although rural areas make up less than two-thirds of counties in the nation, nine out of 10 counties with the highest food insecurity rates are rural, according to Feeding America.

In Oklahoma, Chief Hoskin sees the need.

The Cherokee Nation took part in the SUN Bucks pilot program with the USDA. He said last year, the Nation had 13,000 people in the program. As of late May of this year, Hoskin said roughly 53,000 people are enrolled in the program through the Cherokee Nation

For him, food access for families plays a key role for the tribal nation to reach its health, education and economic goals.

“It's very important in any timeframe or context,” Hoskin said. “Because low-income children who need additional support for nutrition ought to get it. It's in the national interest for them to get it, whether that is the Cherokee national interest or the United States national interest.”

This story was produced in partnership with Harvest Public Media, a collaboration of public media newsrooms in the Midwest. It reports on food systems, agriculture and rural issues.

I cover agriculture and rural affairs for Harvest Public Media for KOSU in Oklahoma. You can reach me at anna@kosu.org.
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