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Deadline approaching for Missouri to join federal program providing summer food benefits for kids

A shopper peruses selections of fresh produce at Betty Ann Market in Mascoutah. While Mascoutah is included in areas that can be surveyed for the Consumer Price Index, counties without a town of at least 10,000 people are not eligible.
Brian Munoz
St. Louis Public Radio
A shopper peruses selections of fresh produce at Betty Ann Market in Mascoutah. States have until Jan. 1 to notify the federal government of their intent to participate in the program and must submit an implementation plan by Feb. 15.

Roughly 429,000 Missouri children would be eligible to receive $51.5 million in food benefits next summer if the state chooses to participate in the federal program. Missouri has until January 1 to decide.

Missouri education and social services officials have not yet made a decision on whether to participate in a federal food assistance program next summer, weighing their ability to execute it after years of administrative challenges and delays.

Participating in the program, called Summer EBT, would provide approximately $51.5 million in food benefits to 429,000 Missouri children next summer. States have until Jan. 1 to notify the federal government of their intent to participate, and must submit a plan by Feb. 15.

The state is evaluating federal guidelines and “assessing Missouri’s ability to implement the [Summer EBT] program in 2024,” said Mallory McGowin, spokesperson for the Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, the agency that administers the benefits.

At least 20 other states have already notified the government of their intent to opt in to Summer EBT.

The program provides $40 in food benefits for each month the child is on summer break, loaded onto a card that can be used like a debit card to purchase groceries. Students who are eligible for free or reduced lunch during the school year are eligible for Summer EBT.

“We know how important this program is for kids and families,” said Crystal FitzSimons, director of School and Out-of-School Time Programs at the D.C.-based Food Research & Action Center.

“And we know what a huge impact it would make on reducing summer hunger, and easing the pressure on families’ household food budget. So we are really hopeful that Missouri and other states come onto the program.”

In a letter to Gov. Mike Parson sent Wednesday afternoon, a coalition of Missouri advocacy groups including Empower Missouri urged the governor to direct the education and social services agencies to operate the program.

“Missouri’s Department of Social Services or Department of Elementary and Secondary Education must act soon to meet this deadline,” the letter said. “…It is vital that Missouri leverage this opportunity to keep summer hunger at bay in 2024 and beyond.”

Missouri officials are weighing considerations including: “technology solutions and the timeline in which a system would be in production and complete,” along with the level of staffing assigned to EBT implementation and administrative funding, McGowin said.

The Summer EBT program was approved and made permanent by Congress last year. A similar, temporary program called Pandemic EBT provided various benefits during the pandemic, including over the summers.

The temporary pandemic-era food programs were beset with administrative issues in Missouri that made dispersing benefits difficult — particularly because it required a new data collection portal to collect and share eligible students’ information with two agencies in the state.

The benefits designed to cover food costs during the summer of 2022 did not start going out until June 2023, and Missouri declined to participate in the summer 2023 program because of those issues — foregoing at least $40 million in aid.

The state is still troubleshooting benefits from summer 2022, McGowin said — primarily cases in which the department did not have the students’ correct address. Around 348,000 school children received the summer 2022 benefits, which is more than 100,000 short of the number predicted to have been eligible — a discrepancy McGowin has previously attributed to instances such as students graduating or moving and no longer qualifying.

Summer 2022 Pandemic EBT also included children under age six, which the permanent program will not. Those benefits were dispersed in September 2023, McGowin said.

In July, McGowin pledged that going forward the state would “focus on implementing the system changes necessary to facilitate participation in Summer EBT programs in future years,” but said to participate, the state’s “data collection systems need to be addressed well in advance.”

FitzSimons said some states are “in a better place coming out of pandemic EBT.”

“Others I think didn’t really set up the long-term systems to build off of,” she said.“And Missouri did not participate in 2023. So I think they do need to do some work, probably, in setting up more permanent systems.”

She added that putting in the effort now to create the system for this summer would ensure there is “less food insecurity over the summer in Missouri, that kids are able to return to school in the fall well nourished and ready to learn,” she said — and create a framework for years to come.

States are also facing the broader challenges of implementing a program with new guidance from the federal government and securing the funding to do so.

The federal government will pay for the benefits but split the administrative cost 50/50 with the state. There is no budget request in the education department’s current fiscal year 2025 budget request for Summer EBT.

McGowin said a request would be added during the legislative appropriations process if a decision to implement the program is made.

This story was originally published by the Missouri Independent.

Clara Bates covers social services and poverty for The Missouri Independent.
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