Concerns arise as more than a dozen states reject new summer food benefit for children, leaving a gap in support

During the scorching summer months in South Carolina, the Lowcountry Food Bank experiences its peak season. This dedicated organization works tirelessly to provide meals to children throughout the year. As soon as schools close in June, they open approximately twenty feeding sites in Myrtle Beach, Charleston, Yemassee, and other coastal communities. These sites are funded by the U.S Department of Agriculture and cater to low-income families, offering them a place to bring their children for a nourishing meal during the day.

According to Misty Brady, the community meals coordinator at the Lowcountry Food Bank, last summer saw the distribution of over 18,000 meals to families. However, the demand for assistance is far greater than what the current sites can accommodate.

According to Brady, the demand for meals is high, but the challenge lies in identifying the areas where assistance is needed the most. Many families are unable to access these meals due to the significant obstacle of transportation.

This summer, states were given the chance to participate in a program aimed at addressing these gaps. The Summer Electronic Benefit Transfer Program, also known as Summer EBT, will provide eligible low-income families with an additional $40 per month, or $120 per child, to help cover their grocery expenses. This program, which is a modified version of an emergency food benefit implemented during the pandemic, aims to make it easier for families who are unable to access feeding centers to obtain food.

Unfortunately, South Carolina is one of the 15 states that missed the deadline to opt in for this year’s program. It is worth noting that the state has one of the highest rates of food insecurity in the country, with 15 percent of residents reporting uncertainty about meeting the food needs of all household members at some point during the year, compared to the national average of 11 percent.

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South Carolina Gov. Henry McMaster announced in a press conference in January that the state has chosen not to participate in Summer EBT. The decision was made as part of the state’s efforts to transition away from pandemic assistance.

South Carolina Governor McMaster explained that the decision to end the COVID-related benefit was based on the need to return to normal business operations. He emphasized the importance of not relying on these benefits indefinitely, while assuring that other programs would continue to be supported. In contrast, some leaders in other states framed their opposition to the program in political terms. For instance, Governor Tate Reeves of Mississippi referred to it as an expansion of the “welfare state.” Meanwhile, others cited constraints in staffing and funding as reasons for discontinuing the program.

In South Carolina, several summer meals programs are facing challenges in meeting the increasing demand. The USDA’s largest program in the state depends on sponsors, such as the Lowcountry Food Bank, for distributing food. However, the number of sponsors participating in the program has declined over the years. In 2019, there were 78 sponsors, but by 2023, this number had reduced to 45, as reported by the South Carolina Department of Education.

The South Carolina Department of Education recently issued a request for additional volunteers, just over a week after the Summer EBT deadline had expired.

“Our goal for 2024 is to expand the number of meal sites, ensuring that more children have access to nutritious meals during the summer,” stated Virgie Chambers, deputy superintendent of district operations, safety, and student wellness at SCDE. Chambers emphasized the need for additional community partners, particularly in rural and low-income areas, to achieve this objective.

Transportation poses a significant challenge for families seeking to access the meals, adding to the barriers faced by the program. Moreover, the operating hours of the sites, which are limited to the morning and early afternoon, create difficulties for parents who work during those times and are unable to make the journey.

In South Carolina, there is another USDA program that enables certain schools to continue offering meals to students who qualify for free and reduced-price lunch even during the summer months. However, families still face the same challenges, as they need to find a means of reaching the school building during the day in order to access these meals.

“The traditional summer meals programs only manage to reach a fraction of the eligible students,” explained Kelsey Boone, a senior child nutrition policy analyst at the Food Research and Action Center. “That’s where the Summer EBT program steps in, filling the gaps left by these programs and ensuring more students receive the meals they need during the summer.”

In both programs, families are usually required to dine on-site, with the exception of rural areas. Last year, rural areas were given the choice to allow families to take multiple meals home at once.

Lisa Davis, the senior vice president of Share Our Strength and its No Kid Hungry Campaign, expresses hope that more states will choose to participate in the program next year. She acknowledges that there were challenges that made it more difficult for states to opt in this time. One of these barriers was the delayed release of the USDA’s rules and guidelines for Summer EBT, which occurred just a few days before the opt-in deadline. Additionally, while the federal government is covering the cost of the program’s benefits for families, states are now required to contribute 50 percent of the administrative costs associated with running the program. Despite these obstacles, Davis remains optimistic about the potential for increased participation in the future.

During the conversation with the states, Davis expressed his reassurance. He mentioned that he was not hearing a lot of resistance or opposition to the idea. Instead, what he was hearing was a lot of uncertainty and a lack of clarity on how to implement the plan. Many states were unsure about the specific details and were still in the process of gathering all the necessary information and resources.

Brady, from the Lowcountry Food Bank, believes that South Carolina should consider participating in the program next summer, even though it is too late for them to do so this year.

Brady expressed his hope that people would recognize the pressing need and the significant positive impact it would have on families.

The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education, has produced this story about Summer EBT. Stay updated with the latest education news by signing up for the Hechinger newsletter.

Advocates are expressing concerns about the gap that will be left behind when a new summer food benefit for children is rejected by over a dozen states. The Hechinger Report highlights the potential consequences of this decision in their recent post.

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