As Iowa food banks hit record demand, advocates push Reynolds to approve Summer EBT

As Iowa food banks hit record demand, advocates push Reynolds to approve Summer EBT

DMARC CEO Matt Unger speaks during a January anti-hunger rally at the Iowa Capitol as Luke Elzinga of DMARC and the Iowa Hunger Coalition looks on. Photo by Ty Rushing/Starting Line

By Ty Rushing

July 9, 2024

Gov. Kim Reynolds blamed childhood obesity on her decision not to feed Iowa kids over the summer, but the coalition hopes to change her mind with a petition.

As food pantries across Iowa continue to face record demand, a group of anti-hunger nonprofits is renewing its calls for Gov. Kim Reynolds to accept $29 million in federal funds to feed about 240,000 Iowa children.

The Iowa Hunger Coalition aims to collect 2,500 signatures by Aug. 2 so it can present them to Reynolds in hopes of changing her mind about participating in a federal Summer Electronic Benefits (EBT) program through the US Department of Agriculture next year after not participating this year.

“The state of Iowa is sitting on a two-billion dollar surplus,” said Sheila Hansen, a coalition board member and senior policy advocate and government relations manager at Common Good Iowa. “Summer EBT is an incredibly effective use of state funds that would make a profound impact in the daily lives of hundreds of thousands of Iowans.”

Reynolds initially declined to participate in December and has reaffirmed her stance multiple times since. She has cited several reasons, 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 in December. “An EBT card does nothing to promote nutrition at a time when childhood obesity has become an epidemic.”

The Iowa Hunger Coalition has mounted public pressure on Reynolds to accept the funds since her announcement, including holding events at the Iowa Capitol during the legislative session to no avail.

When asked why the group keeps trying to get Reynolds to change her mind on something she seems firm about, Iowa Hunger Coalition Chair Luke Elzinga said, “They have to keep at it.”

“We’re not resting until Summer EBT is passed in Iowa,” he said. “Right now, we are seeing firsthand at food banks, at food pantries across the state—really unstainable numbers, I think. We all saw this coming, but I think right now those records are continuing to be broken, and there is a lot of strain on families.”

Elzinga, who also serves as the policy and advocacy manager at the Des Moines Area Religious Council (DMARC) Food Pantry Network, said DMARC continues to see record use this summer. 

In June, the DMARC set a new record after it provided food assistance to 2,080 people across its 14 permanent food pantry sites. That record was broken on July 2 when DMARC served 2,151 individuals. DMARC has provided food assistance for nearly 50 years.

The Summer EBT Program—recently renamed SUN Bucks—would have provided each participating child with $40 a month on a debit card registered to their name. It would have cost Iowa about $2 million to administer the program in exchange for $29 million and a chance to feed almost a quarter-million kids.

Instead, Reynolds allocated $900,000 in federal COVID-relief dollars to launch the competitive summer meal grant program through two existing federal programs, which some critics dubbed a “hunger game.”

The grant program was implemented in conjunction with the Iowa Department of Education, and on May 23, it was announced that 38 school districts were awarded grants to support 61 new summer meal sites.

While Elzinga acknowledges the benefits of summer meal sites, he notes that they still present challenges for some families.

“There’s still a lot of barriers that exist in accessing those, and we’re seeing all kinds of first-time food pantry visitors,” he said. “That’s just indicative of a lot of people really struggling right now; costs are still high, wages haven’t come up for everyone, and there’s just a lot of people making difficult decisions between paying rent, putting food on the table, paying for child care, medicine, so we’re seeing more people turn to food pantries.”

Elzinga noted other pantries across Iowa are also experiencing the same high-volume usage as DMARC, and it is unsustainable, which is why they continue to urge Reynolds to accept the federal funds. Iowa is one of a dozen-Republican led states that refused assistance. 

“It’s $120 per kid, that helps during the summer for families who are struggling and not only those families who are facing that strain, but food banks, food pantries, and other anti-hunger organizations are seeing that as well,” Elzinga said. 

The petition:

  • 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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