Jan 3, 2024 - Politics

Why Iowa rejected $29 million in child food aid

Illustration of a place setting with a plate in the shape of Iowa.

Illustration: Brendan Lynch/Axios

Iowa rejected more than $29 million in summer food assistance for children of low-income families last month after determining it would cost millions of dollars in administrative expenses, according to a state government analysis obtained by Axios.

Why it matters: Iowa is in a hunger crisis, as 2023 was Des Moines Area Religious Council's (DMARC) food pantry network's busiest year ever.

  • More than a third of the more than 65,000 people it assisted last year were kids, spokesperson Blake Willadsen tells Axios.

Catch up fast: The annual Summer Electronic Benefits Transfer program was created by Congress a year ago. It provides $120 per low-income child in summer food benefits starting this year.

  • States had until Jan. 1 to notify federal officials that they intend to operate the program.

State of play: Gov. Kim Reynolds issued a statement just before Christmas saying Iowa would not participate, partly because the assistance doesn't promote nutrition at a time when child obesity is an epidemic.

  • Reynolds said the Biden administration and Congress should have given states flexibility to tailor the program to the state's needs.

The other side: Groups like the Iowa Hunger Coalition believe the state's administrative cost analysis is misleading, chairperson Luke Elzinga tells Axios.

  • The Coalition plans to help make the program an issue in the legislative session that starts next week.

Context: Iowa is one of 20 states not listed among those that are participating in the program, according to a federal tracker.

  • Seventeen of those states — including Missouri, Nebraska and South Dakota — are led by Republican governors.

The big picture: Reynolds' administration has rejected more than $200 million in federal money in recent years, including for housing assistance and climate pollution reduction grants.

  • Iowa reversed course last summer by applying for a summer food program aid after pushback from more than 40 groups that advocate for low-income families. That program covered 2023.

What they're saying: About half of the summer program's nearly $4.4 million of administrative costs would be paid by the federal government, according to the Iowa Health and Human Services Department's estimates.

  • Some of the costs would be for one-time expenses like system enhancements, which means the total annual administrative costs would be lower in upcoming years, Elzinga says.
  • "We're going to work like hell to make it happen in 2025 and every year going forward."

The other side: Officials from Iowa Health and Human Services (HHS) are increasingly focusing on "whole family wellness" and will instead look to enhance existing food programs like SNAP, spokesperson Sarah Ekstrand tells Axios.

  • Cash benefit cards like those that would be made available in the summer program do not achieve direct access to healthy meals for kids, she says.

Of note: Studies have shown that summer programs improve food security and child nutrition, according to the Food Research & Action Center.

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