The unconscionable rejection of food aid for hungry kids is all about politics

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The list of state initiatives in dire need of federal funds to address a host of important public health programs is long. Whether it’s related to Medicaid, the environment, transportation or housing, many states are desperate for help managing the ever-increasing needs of their communities.

A major public health threat consistently in need of state funding involves access to the most basic human essential — food. In response, the Biden administration recently announced details of a new bipartisan summer program that would provide $2.5 billion in state funding for healthier food options that will help 21 million low-income children when school isn’t in session.  

The Summer Electronic Benefits Transfer, or Summer EBT program, offers each child of an eligible family $40 per month, accessible via an EBT card, which can be used at grocery stores that accept Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program benefits.

In a stunning move, 15 governors have said they will reject those funds. That’s not a typo: These state leaders will turn down resources that can help alleviate child hunger in their very own communities.

“I don’t believe in welfare,” Gov. Jim Pillen (R-Neb.) told reporters in defending his decision. He noted in a statement that “COVID-19 is over and Nebraska taxpayers expect that pandemic-era government relief programs will end too.”  

Referring to it as a “COVID-era cash benefit program,” Gov. Kim Reynolds (R-Iowa), another Summer EBT detractor, said, “An EBT card does nothing to promote nutrition at a time when childhood obesity has become an epidemic.”

Iowa Hunger Coalition Board Chair Luke Elzinga called Reynolds’s action “unconscionable.”

“The idea,” he wrote, “that low-income Iowans can’t be trusted to make their own choices about what to feed their kids is incredibly insulting.” Approximately 240,000 food-insecure children in Iowa alone will be denied federal support as a result of the governor’s decision.

Reynolds and Pillen are wrong on the facts. First, the Summer EBT program doesn’t source federal funds from the economic relief measures implemented as a result of COVID-19. It is a new program, administered by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, funded by the 2023 fiscal year spending bill, which received bipartisan support in Congress.

Second, as Elzinga correctly notes, “an abundance of academic research” shows a clear connection between obesity and food insecurity. To state otherwise reflects a remarkable lack of understanding about the factors driving obesity rates in America.

Even more troubling is the effortless way in which these governors chose to weaponize child hunger. Their statements suggest we should aspire to return to pre-pandemic levels of food insecurity, and that we should restrict federal assistance to prevent it. That’s beyond the pale, especially considering the “COVID-era” food programs Reynolds disparages had a demonstrable impact in lowering hunger in America. The data proves it.

Their decision to turn down federal funding is an obvious stunt designed to generate headlines and secure support from their core voter bases. But that political gamesmanship will be lost on the millions of children who won’t have available resources to find healthy food options this summer.

It’s the latest battleground in the war over SNAP, a program the GOP has long sought to dismantle. Lawmakers failed to pass a farm bill at the end of the last legislative session, largely due to GOP resistance over the bill’s support of continued SNAP funding. The bill’s fate this year remains equally unclear.

What these purported budget hawks fail to recognize, though, is that supporting federal food assistance programs is a fiscally sound strategy. The Summer EBT program steers children away from cheaper food, which often has higher calories. Healthier food can lower obesity — and reduce the health complications associated with it, such as diabetes, stroke and heart disease.  

And lower health problems ultimately reduce the level of taxpayer money needed to financially support those who can’t afford health insurance.  

But the optics of accepting federal resources to combat child food insecurity contradict the anti-government spending brand these state leaders have spent years crafting. Rejecting them — even though it may cost their states more money over the long term — offers better short-term political value.

And that’s inexcusable. Some issues require elected leaders to override the reflexive desire to score quick points with their voters. Some are too great. Some demand that they listen to their moral compass and put America’s collective good above their political advancement. Some don’t deserve any political debate at all.

Supporting a bipartisan program to provide children access to healthy food is at the top of that list.

Lyndon Haviland, DrPH, MPH, is a distinguished scholar at the CUNY School of Public Health and Health Policy.

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