This past spring, as the school year was winding down, nonprofits across the country began working on plans to implement their summer feeding programs for kids. Planning was harder than usual though, as nonprofits were unsure what this summer would look like.
The waivers that were put into place in March 2020 in light of the COVID 19 pandemic were set to expire on June 30, 2022. These waivers allowed for more flexibility in when meals were served, how meals were served, where kids could eat the meals, and who could pick up the meals. Nonprofits saw the number of hungry children they were able to serve increase dramatically because of these flexibilities. It also made serving meals easier and less burdensome for nonprofits, many of whom were struggling with staffing levels. Throughout the spring and early summer, advocates from across the country were working tirelessly to encourage Congress to extend these waivers through the summer of 2022.
Finally, on June 24th (only a week before the waivers were set to expire), Congress passed the Keep Kids Fed Act, which among many things, extended the waiver options that states could take to make summer feeding programs more efficient and effective. There was not much time for states to apply to keep the waivers, or for nonprofits to implement the changes, but 49 out of 50 states still managed to get it done.
According to an NBC news report, Missouri was the only state to not apply for the continuation of these vital waivers. The primary consequence of this action was that nonprofits were no longer able to offer “grab-and-go” meals to families– instead, families were required to bring their children to the nonprofit organization so that nonprofit staff could monitor children consuming the food. The result, as reported on by NBC news, was “a dramatic drop in the number of meals that Missouri kids received: up to 97% fewer than last summer at some sites.”
The decision to not apply for these waivers was made by the Department of Health and Senior Services (DHSS). Advocates and direct service providers implored the Department to continue these waivers through the summer of 2022. But, Department representatives said that since Missouri had declared the end of the pandemic and moved into an endemic era that they could not apply for these waivers because they were only usable because of COVID-19. In an email to NBC news, the USDA (the federal department that issues the waivers) said that it “did not explicitly define limitations of congregate meal service due to COVID-19.”
Missouri’s Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE), which provides summer meals at school sites through a different federal program, did successfully apply for and receive waiver extensions and were allowed to run summer meal programs with a grab-and-go option.
When we find ourselves on the receiving end of this sort of negative national media attention, it is a natural inclination to look for someone to blame. So, who is at fault here? The answer is complicated. Part of the blame goes to the federal government. The Keep Kids Fed Act included a change in federal policy, moving the grab-and-go option from a blanket rule that all states had to allow to an option states could take if they chose to. While 49 states opted in, Missouri did not; ultimately, this could have been prevented by better federal policy.
Of course, DHSS deserves their share of the blame. Their interpretation of the waiver policy was obviously not shared by DESE, and when advocates were finally able to secure a meeting with the governor’s office in late July, staff indicated that they were not aware of this decision nor had they issued the guidance to DHSS to not apply for the program. Plenty of other governors declared the pandemic to be over earlier this year, and yet their program administrators universally still opted into the waiver program, because the program is fully federally funded and feeds hungry children.
But assigning blame doesn’t undo the harm that was caused by this administrative decision. So, how can we be forward-thinking about ensuring that this type of decision doesn’t happen again? First, we can address the underlying attitudes that drive this type of policy-making. DHSS officials told advocates this summer that the grab-and-go option damages the “integrity of the program.” Governor Parson echoed this sentiment in a series of tweets on Wednesday, saying, “By requiring kids to eat meals on-site, we can be confident that the kids who need the meals are getting the meals.”
Y’all. Have you ever seen one of these meals? They are not fancy. They are nutritionally adequate. They meet USDA guidelines for servings of grain, protein, fruits and vegetables and the minimum portion size for children to meet their caloric needs. They are not something that you would choose to eat if you had another option. And yet, there are those who are simply terrified that some of these meals would be eaten by a hungry adult rather than a child. (It is hard for me to imagine a scenario where an adult would feed themselves while letting a child go hungry; if that was the case, it is an issue for Child Protective Services.)
It comes down to the same issue that we see with our policymakers over and over again– a belief that any person in need of government assistance must be incapable of making good decisions for themselves and their families. In Missouri, policymakers choose to perpetuate a narrative that families living in poverty must somehow be at fault for their financial situation, and therefore they are probably undeserving of the assistance that they are receiving. And, when we do allow them to receive assistance, it must be doled out very carefully– to the point of requiring families to bring their children to a location to be monitored while they eat.
Imagine the inconvenience. Imagine that you are getting off a long day at work, likely at a labor-intensive, minimum-wage job, and you want to get home to relieve your neighbor or parent or teenaged child or spouse of childcare responsibilities and get dinner on the table. You know that the pantries are empty and the kids will be hungry, and you want to stop by the YMCA to grab the meals afforded to your family by the federal government and take them home for your kids to eat. But, you aren’t allowed to do that. You have to go home, pack up the (hungry and cranky) kids in the car, spend extra money on gas, and drive them to and from the meal site so that the Missouri government can be extra sure that it is the children eating those meals and not you. Imagine how demoralizing and judgmental it must feel to be monitored in that way. Imagine the extra stress, time and cost that it adds to your day, every day. We say it all of the time– living in poverty is a full-time job, and it is this type of red tape that creates that reality.
At Empower Missouri, we implore all of our policymakers to work to build their empathy and understanding of the circumstances endured by those living in poverty and work to enact policies that are kind, supportive, and convenient for families who are already struggling. Enacting policy through this lens will ensure that this type of systemic failure does not happen again.