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Jan. 3, 2024 |  By: Clara Bates - Missouri Independent

Missouri opts into summer EBT federal food benefits program

food bank

By Clara Bates - Missouri Independent

Missouri has made the tentative decision to participate in a federal food assistance program for kids, potentially opening the door for millions of dollars in aid through a program called Summer EBT. 

However, the decision is not binding and Missouri still has to submit a detailed plan to the federal government on how it plans to run the program and secure the necessary administrative funds.

The state had until Jan. 1 to take this initial step or foreclose the option to participate entirely. 

“We’ll still have some work to do to support (the Department of Social Services) in putting together all of the pieces needed to actually receive these critical funds,” said Mallory Rusch, executive director of the nonprofit Empower Missouri, which urged the state to submit the letter of intent. “Nonetheless, this is an important win.”

The program, which is administered by the Department of Social Services in conjunction with the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, would provide $40 in food benefits for each month an eligible child is on summer break, loaded onto a card that can be used like a debit card to purchase groceries. Students who are eligible for free or reduced lunch during the school year are eligible for Summer EBT. 

States have until Feb. 15 to submit a detailed management and administration plan to the federal government. 

Missouri officials wrote to the federal government in their letter of intent dated Dec. 21 that a “lack of final guidance” from the federal government regarding implementation of the program “poses potential unforeseen challenges to the implementation.”

Additionally, Missouri’s ability to meet the state funding requirements is contingent on obtaining funds from the state’s General Assembly, the letter noted, and Whaley said the department would need to secure those funds “before we are able to proceed further.”

The federal government will pay for the benefits but split the administrative cost 50/50 with the state.

The social services department will be the lead agency on the Summer EBT program, working with the education department.

At least 30 other states signed on, according to the Food and Nutrition Services site, the federal agency which administers the program.

In some states, the program has spurred controversy. Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds recently announced her state would not participate, saying “an EBT card does nothing to promote nutrition at a time when childhood obesity has become an epidemic.” Nebraska Gov. Jim Pillen also decided his state wouldn’t participate, defended his opposition to the program by saying, “I don’t believe in welfare.”

Last month, Missouri officials were weighing considerations including: “technology solutions and the timeline in which a system would be in production and complete,” along with the level of staffing assigned to EBT implementation and administrative funding, education department spokesperson Mallory McGowin then said.

The Summer EBT program was approved and made permanent by Congress last year. A similar, temporary program called Pandemic EBT provided various benefits during the pandemic, including over the summers.

The temporary pandemic-era food programs were beset with administrative issues in Missouri that made dispersing benefits difficult — particularly because it required a new data collection portal to collect and share eligible students’ information with two agencies in the state.

The benefits designed to cover food costs during the summer of 2022 did not start going out until June 2023, and Missouri declined to participate in the summer 2023 program because of those issues — forgoing at least $40 million in aid.