“Is there anyone among you who, if your child asked for bread, would give a stone?” said Jesus from the mount. Fifteen Republican governors quickly raised their hands. “I don’t believe in welfare,” said Nebraska Gov. Jim Pillen. Governor Tate Reeves of Mississippi, whose state has the highest rates of child poverty and hunger in the country, agreed. Giving additional food to children was just another attempt by President Biden to “expand the welfare state.” Not to be outdone, Iowa’s governor, Kim Reynolds, chimed in, “Childhood obesity has become an epidemic.” Then governors from Alabama, Alaska, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, Oklahoma, South Carolina, South Dakota, Texas, Vermont and Wyoming, nodding, returned home and denied food to 8 million impoverished children across America.

The Summer Electronic Benefit Transfer will provide families whose children are eligible for free or reduced school lunches during the academic year $120 per child to purchase food at grocery stores, farmers’ markets, and other authorized retailers over the summer when schools are closed. Qualifying families, those with incomes at or under 185% of the federal poverty line, receive a card for each child with that child’s name on it and $40 is transferred to the cards each month for three months over the summer break. The federal government pays for the entire cost of the food benefit and half of the administration costs, leaving the other half to the states, who receive training and assistance to implement the program from the Department of Agriculture.

The Department of Agriculture developed Summer EBT after conducting trials of summer grocery assistance in select states and some Native American Tribes. “Rigorous evaluation of Summer EBT demonstration projects clearly show that these benefits work,” said Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack. In the pilot programs, food assistance decreased the percentage of children suffering from extreme hunger by 30%. Such programs also decreased children’s consumption of sugary beverages and increased their access to healthy food such as fruits, vegetables and whole grains, which are more expensive. “There is no evidence that a program like this has anything to do with childhood obesity,” said Erica Kenney of Harvard University, who studies childhood nutrition programs. “It is not at all true that helping people who are struggling financially means they’re going to eat more and gain weight.”

Congress passed Summer EBT with a bipartisan vote in 2022 as a replacement for a similar, more generous, pandemic program of increased SNAP benefits. While states had until January 1, 2024, to opt in to the new Summer EBT program, only 35 states, along with four Native American tribes and five U.S. territories, chose to do so. “For the life of me I don’t see why 50 governors aren’t doing [Summer EBT],” Vilsack said, “but we’re happy that 35 are. We’re happy that territories are in, and we’re happy that the tribes are continuing to work with us.” With current enrollment, Summer EBT will reach 70% of the children who need food assistance and provide $2.5 billion in grocery benefits. So, in addition to feeding children in need, Summer EBT also pumps millions of dollars into local grocery stores and farmers’ markets as participants purchase food.

“After a decade long decline, hunger is on the rise in the United States as food costs have skyrocketed and the pandemic food assistance programs have ended.”

After a decade long decline, hunger is on the rise in the United States as food costs have skyrocketed and the pandemic food assistance programs have ended. In October the Department of Agriculture reported 17 million families had difficulty finding enough food in 2022, which was up from 13.5 million the year before, when pandemic food aid was available. Seven million of these families were forced to skip meals and most couldn’t afford balanced meals. This means that 13 million children in these families also went hungry. The nutrition children receive impacts their future health. Children who experience food insecurity are more likely to have cognitive and developmental delays and have higher rates of hospitalization. Black and Latino households have twice the rates of hunger when compared to the national average and are less likely to have access to nutritious food.   

Summer EBT is just one way the federal government is working to alleviate child hunger in the U.S. There is also the Summer Food Service Program (SFSP) available in all fifty states, where local organizations such as churches, camps, schools, are reimbursed for providing meals that meet with federal nutritional guidelines. But Vilsack worries SFSP doesn’t “provide the help for all the children, no matter how well-intentioned it is,” because only one in six eligible children have the transportation necessary to reach these in-person meal sites. Children whose parents do not own a car, lack access to quality mass transit, or those living in rural areas still go hungry.

In addition to being difficult to access, prepared meals often do not meet the dietary needs of children with food allergies or medical complications like celiac disease. It can be difficult for meal sites to follow the religious dietary requirements for children who are Buddhist, Hindu, Muslim, Jewish, Sikh, or Rastafarian. Neurodiverse children often struggle with sensory and taste issues when it comes to food. With Summer EBT, parents can purchase the groceries they need to meet their children’s varied and often complex nutritional needs.

The Republican governors who refused to enroll their states in Summer EBT, however, appear less interested in feeding hungry children than in scoring political points with conservatives. Governors PIllen’s and Tate’s comments referring to Summer EBT as “welfare” harken back to the Reagan era’s obsession with the “welfare queen” living large off government benefits. Pillen also objects that the $40 a month will be given to children for free. He wants children to pull themselves up by their Paw Patrol bootstraps and learn about nutrition, read books, and be “out with other people, not feeding a welfare system with food at home” to earn their benefits. However, a bipartisan group of state senators in Pillen’s Nebraska is filing legislation to force the state’s Department of Health and Human Services to opt in to Summer EBT.

“The Republican governors who refused to enroll their states in Summer EBT, however, appear less interested in feeding hungry children than in scoring political points with conservatives.”

Florida passed up $250 million in nutritional aid that would have fed 2 million children and brought $466 million to the economy in food purchases. The spokesperson for Governor Ron DeSantis cited “federal strings” as the problem. Perhaps the governor wanted the freedom to allow LGBTQ children to go hungry. Iowa’s Reynolds turned down $29 million in government funding to feed 240,000 children over the summer. The Summer EBT would have only cost the state $2.2 million to run after splitting the cost with the federal government. While Reynolds hopes to solve the obesity epidemic by forcing poor children to go hungry, she also objects to Summer EBT because she and the Iowa legislature would not have control over the funds to distribute as they see fit.

Several governors also cited the lack of “nutritional requirements” as the reason they rejected the additional food aid. This objection is laughable considering how outraged many Republicans were over Michelle Obama’s White House vegetable garden. As with healthcare and education, it is just another example of Republican leadership not trusting parents to make appropriate choices for their children.

States and Tribes who didn’t opt to enroll their children in the Summer EBT this year will have another opportunity to do so in 2025. “No child in this country should go hungry,” Vilsack said. “They certainly shouldn’t go hungry because they lose access to nutritious school meals during the summer months.” Jesus, who had compassion on those who were hungry and fed them, would certainly agree.