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Nebraska governor accepts federal dollars to feed low-income kids

In World
February 20, 2024

Nebraska’s governor announced this week that the state would accept federal dollars to help feed children from low-income families, breaking away from the more than a dozen other Republican governors around the US who have refused to do so.

Just last month, Jim Pillen joined 14 other Republican governors in opting not to enroll in Summer EBT, a new federal food program that provides low-income families with a monthly payment of $40 per child during summer vacation. In participating states, families with children in free or reduced-price school lunch programs will get $40 per qualifying child on an electronic benefits transfer (EBT) card throughout each of the three summer months. That money can be used to purchase groceries and food from farmers’ markets.

States were given until the end of 2023 to enroll, and they can enroll in the future even if they’ve skipped the year before. On 16 February, the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) told Politico it would still allow states to apply even if they had missed the enrollment deadlines.

“Even though states were asked to submit their notice of intent by January 1, USDA will consider every situation based on the specific circumstances,” a spokesperson, Allan Rodriguez, said in a statement. “We are committed to working with everyone to achieve our goal of nationwide implementation as quickly as possible. That includes those who are operationally ready to participate successfully in 2024 – as well as those that are working towards implementation in 2025.”

Pillen said his reversal stemmed from his recent conversations with low-income children in Nebraska.

“They talked about being hungry. And they talked about the summer USDA program and, depending upon access, when they’d get a sack of food,” Pillen said at a press conference this week. “And from my seat, what I saw there, we have to do better in Nebraska.”

The reversal was welcomed by the non-profit Nebraska Appleseed, which advocates for the end of childhood poverty and hunger in the state. In December, after Pillen criticized the federal food program as an unnecessary form of “welfare”, Nebraska Appleseed collected 6,100 signatures from state residents for a petition calling on the governor to opt into Summer EBT.

“We worked really hard to educate the governor about what is happening to families in this state,” said Eric Savaiano, program manager for food and nutrition access at Nebraska Appleseed.

Savaiano said he and other childhood welfare advocates had anticipated Pillen’s hostility towards the food program, citing the governor’s pledge to reduce state spending by 3% by the end of this fiscal year, followed by another 6% by the end of 2025.

“So the small investment that it would take to bring a program like this into the state might have been a non-starter for him,” Savaiano said. “Which, I suppose, is one way to cut government spending, by letting kids go hungry.”

Other Republican governors cited similar reasons for rejecting the federal aid, which is expected to cost $2.5bn this year and contribute to feeding 21 million children.

Last month, when Mississippi announced plans to opt out of the Summer EBT program, Governor Tate Reeves characterized the decision as a way to reject “attempts to expand the welfare state”.

In Oklahoma, Governor Kevin Stitt told local reporters that the state “gave over $20 million over the last couple of years to different food banks”, which was enough to ensure that “kids won’t be going hungry in the summertime”.

Oklahoma and Mississippi consistently rank among the worst states for childhood hunger and food insecurity in the United States. Hunger is also worsening nationwide, with the USDA reporting that food insecurity rose from 13.5m households in 2021 to 17m households in 2022.

“For these governors, it always comes down to this basic conservative argument that ‘this is an expansion of government, and what our state really needs is to be less lazy,’” said Keri Rodrigues, president of the National Parents Union. “The governors that reject this program on those conservative principles are also the ones whose states desperately need help and support for families.”

Related: Bye-bye, bean burrito: New York City schools cut popular meal options

Rodrigues and other progressive advocates said Republican governors were using hungry schoolchildren as political chess pieces. They argue that the rejection of Summer EBT has become a way for Republican governors to prove their conservative bona fides.

The decision to not enroll in this program is especially difficult for families still reeling from Congress’s decision to end a pandemic-era boost to food stamps last year. The boost, called emergency allotments, was implemented during the height of the pandemic, allowing all families to automatically receive the highest level of food stamp benefits available for their household size.

The end of the emergency allotments was justified, in part, by the creation of Summer EBT. Congress agreed to cut the allotments in order to pay for the new childhood nutrition program.

Without emergency allotments or Summer EBT, low-income families who rely on school lunch programs to feed their children during the school year are now bracing for a difficult summer.

Rodrigues offered a word of advice for constituents in states run by governors who have rejected federal funding for the hungry and choose not to follow the model set by Nebraska – despite the latest extension.

“It’s so hopeful to see how the people of Nebraska were able to stand up and hold their governor accountable for his decision,” said Rodrigues. “These governors are using the cover of darkness to score really cheap political points by rejecting Summer EBT, and they should all be held accountable for that by voters.”

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