‘Kids need to eat:’ Iowans demand state participate in free-food program

Mandi Remington of Iowa City speaks on childhood hunger at the Iowa Capitol on Wednesday, Jan. 17. Photo by Ty Rushing/Starting Line

By Ty Rushing

January 17, 2024

Mandi Remington of Iowa City knows firsthand what it’s like to struggle to feed your kids and how the stability of two incomes can keep a person from leaving an abusive relationship.

“Reflecting on my experience as a domestic violence survivor, I can’t help but wonder if I would have left sooner had I been confident in my ability to provide for my children’s living expenses on my own,” she said.

“I have to work, which means I have to pay for child care on top of a car payment, gas, household expenses, and the responsibility of feeding a family of four several times a day. There have been times that I found myself subsisting off of their leftovers and I am not alone in any of these things,” she continued.

Remington shared this story during a rally at the Iowa Capitol on Wednesday to encourage the state’s lawmakers to feed kids over the summer months when school is out.

In December, Gov. Kim Reynolds announced that the state would decline to participate in a federal Summer Electronic Benefits (EBT) program through the US Department of Agriculture that would have given Iowa $29 million in federal funds to feed about 240,000 children.

Reynolds cited several reasons for Iowa’s decision, including Iowa’s childhood obesity rate.

“Federal COVID-era cash benefit programs are not sustainable and don’t provide long-term solutions for the issues impacting children and families,” Reynolds said. “An EBT card does nothing to promote nutrition at a time when childhood obesity has become an epidemic.”

Participating in the program would cost Iowa $2.2 million in administrative fees, far less than the $29 million the state would get in return. The state also has a budget surplus of more than a billion dollars.

Democrats in the Iowa Legislature have tried to work around the governor to secure funds to feed kids. Iowa Senate Democrats introduced a bill last week to get state agencies to jointly apply for the funds.

In the Iowa House, Rep. Chuck Isenhart (D-Dubuque) introduced similar legislation on Tuesday, except it goes a step further.

In addition to appropriating the money to cover the administrative cost for the Summer EBT Program, Isenhart’s bill also sets aside $700,000 for the Iowa Department of Health and Human Services to contract with the University of Iowa to study the nutritional and health impacts of the program, which, again was created strictly to feed kids.

At Wednesday’s rally, Luke Elzinga of the Iowa Hunger Coalition noted the bill that established the Summer EBT Program passed in a bipartisan effort in December 2022, and that the organization was disappointed by Reyolds’ decision.

“Summer EBT is a common-sense, tried and tested, evidence-based policy for addressing childhood hunger and food insecurity during the summer,” he said.

Besides childhood obesity and incompatibility with existing programs, Reynolds said local churches and organizations can help alleviate food insecurity in the state, but a person affiliated with one of those groups said they are being overwhelmed by demand.

Matt Unger, CEO of the Des Moines Area Religious Council, said they have a network of 14 pantries in the metro that provided assistance to more than 65,000 unique individuals last year.

“Unfortunately, we have seen record-breaking need month after month, which really ramped up in August, culminating this past November in our busiest month in our nearly 50-year history,” Unger said.

Organizers of the rally are hoping Iowa lawmakers are willing to participate in the program in 2025 and are hoping to gather the signatures of 10,000 Iowans for a petition to support this.

Remington, a mother of three, took off from work on Wednesday to share her support for the cause of feeding kids over the summer.

“I’ve been working for the state of Iowa for 17 years and I work full-time hours to support my family,” she said. “Yet, I still find myself severely cost-burdened spending half of my take-home pay on rent alone. There’s no need more basic than food and there is no population more susceptible than the youngest among us.”

In an interview after the rally, Remington noted the administrative costs Iowa would have to pay to participate in the Summer EBT Program are “extraordinarily small for something that has extreme benefits.”

“There is nothing more basic and simple than feeding our kids and that should be something that should cross all party lines, all belief structures,” she said. “Kids need to eat. There’s just really no good reason not to provide for such a basic need.”

  • Ty Rushing

    Ty Rushing is the Chief Political Correspondent for Iowa Starting Line. He is a trail-blazing veteran Iowa journalist, an Emmy-nominated filmmaker, and co-founder and president of the Iowa Association of Black Journalists. Send tips or story ideas to [email protected] and find him on social media @Rushthewriter.

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