Iowa to apply for summer food benefits for children, just weeks before classes begin

USDA denied the state’s previous applications for the program

By: - August 11, 2022 5:14 pm

Iowa is applying for federal summer food benefits, just weeks before the end of summer. (Photo by Amanda Mills/Centers for Disease Control and Prevention)

The state of Iowa is in the process of applying for the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) food benefits program to supply aid for children experiencing hunger during the summer months. 

The state’s previous applications for the program were denied. The new application comes just weeks before many Iowa students will return to fall classes.

At the start of the pandemic, the federal government implemented the Pandemic Electronic Benefit Transfer program (P-EBT). When schools started to shut down, students receiving free or reduced-price meals could apply for a debit-type card to purchase food to make up for missing school meals. 

Currently, 35 states are participating in the summer benefit program. 

Alan Shannon, public affairs director for the USDA’s Food and Nutrition Service, says states can issue benefits for the summer of 2022 if the state plan is approved for the 2021-2022 school year. The state of Iowa submitted three plans to the USDA for the program, but the plans for the 2021-2022 school year were not approved.

“USDA is doing everything it can to ensure all states are positioned to issue P-EBT benefits to families for the summer months when children are at an elevated risk for food insecurity,” Shannon wrote in an email to the Iowa Capital Dispatch.

When Iowa applied for the 2021-2022 school year benefits, the state was denied. Representatives for USDA and the Iowa Department of Human Services did not answer questions about why Iowa’s previous applications were denied.

DHS posted on its website that in addition to its application being denied, the end of pandemic-related benefits in Iowa was a factor in its exclusion from the program. Iowa’s emergency declaration expired in mid-February. But a USDA representative said a state emergency declaration was not necessary for the program.

The U.S. standard summer benefit is based on the “median number of weekdays in a sampled school district multiplied by the daily P-EBT rate,” according to the USDA. Adopting this metric allows states to simplify the state plan and expedites the approval, according to USDA.

Currently, the state of Iowa is finalizing the submission plan to the USDA which will include the benefit distribution schedule and the timeline. Department of Human Services Public Information Officer Alex Carfrae said the state anticipates using the USDA’s standard summer benefit schedule. 

The benefits can be issued at any time of the year, but some advocates questioned the timing for Iowa. Matt Unger, the CEO of the Des Moines Area Religious Council said he is happy the state is applying for the benefits, but it needed to be done in May or June. 

“These families have been without direct access to school breakfast and lunch all summer – kids are back in schools two weeks from now,” Unger said in an email to Iowa Capital Dispatch. “The support for these families and their kiddos is terrific, but it was obvious how badly it was needed much, much sooner.  It still will help these folks with meeting their food needs now, but it would have been even more impactful to have those benefits in June or July.” 

States approved to operate a P-EBT program for the summer of 2022 include:

Alabama

Arizona

California 

Colorado

Connecticut 

Delaware 

District of Columbia 

Hawaii

Illinois

Indiana 

Kansas

Kentucky 

Louisiana 

Maryland 

Massachusetts 

Michigan 

Minnesota 

Mississippi 

Nevada 

New Jersey 

New Mexico 

North Carolina 

North Dakota 

Ohio 

Oklahoma 

Puerto Rico 

Rhode Island 

South Carolina 

Utah

Texas

Vermont 

Virginia 

Washington 

West Virginia 

Wisconsin

Children under the age of 6 residing in a household using SNAP benefits can also qualify for the funds if their state is approved. For the summer, families of eligible children will receive around $391 per child. Alaska, Hawaii and the territories will receive higher amounts of aid. 

Unger said when parents or guardians have to supply three meals instead of one, that makes a serious financial impact on people who are already struggling to meet their basic needs.

“P-EBT is a bridge for these families for those three months off school,” Unger said in an email response. “Problem is, they needed that bridge in place most critically when school ended vs. when it is starting up again.”

Who is facing food insecurity?

 In Iowa, 1 in every 8 children faces hunger, with 40% of households receiving SNAP benefits, according to Feeding America. One-third of the Des Moines Area Religious Council’s services go toward children ages zero to 17.

Data collected Des Moines Area Religious Council. (Graphic from DMARC)

“When we look at who’s coming to the food pantry network across our network, by and large, the largest number of folks are either children, or they’re working or on disability,” Unger said. “When you look at the number of folks that are unemployed, it’s a far lower number than some of these comments make it out to seem.” 

From 2021 to 2022, 40 states received pandemic assistance to feed children over the summer. Iowa did accept the aid in 2019-2020, along with all 50 states, territories and the District of Columbia.

“Without those school breakfasts and lunches, a lot of these kids don’t have another option,” Unger said. “So to have that extra money for their parents to be able to buy food to have to get through those summer months is really critical.”

Due to inflation in 2022, food prices are expected to increase from 2020 and 2021. Prices at the grocery store are estimated to increase between 10% and 11%, according to the USDA

Many food assistance programs originated in the farm bill, which includes 12 focus areas, including nutrition. Unger said he hopes there are discussions during the farm bill negotiations about how food assistance programs accomplished what they were designed to do when rules changed and funding increased during the pandemic. 

“If we can look at that and make an argument of why we shouldn’t be doing that more permanently, I would love to have the conversation,” Unger said. “Because I think there’s a lot of things that worked really well during the pandemic that we probably won’t see ever again.”

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Kate Kealey
Kate Kealey

Katherine Kealey is a senior majoring in journalism and political science at Iowa State University. Before interning at the Iowa Capital Dispatch, she interned at the Carroll Times Herald. She will serve as the editor-in-chief of the Iowa State Daily in the fall.

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