Iowa legislature's clock runs out on feeding hungry kids

Interactive School Nutrition Dashboard created by the Iowa Hunger Coalition

At least four bills that would have helped needy Iowa families feed their children didn’t make it through the state legislature’s first “funnel.”

Most bills not related to taxes or spending are considered dead for the 2024 session if not approved by at least one Iowa House or Senate committee by February 16. Efforts to expand access to meals didn’t receive a subcommittee hearing, let alone consideration by a full committee. That was true even for one school lunch bill with 20 Republican co-sponsors.


Democrats had hoped to pressure Governor Kim Reynolds to accept federal funds that could support an estimated 240,000 Iowa children when school is not in session.

The Iowa Department of Health and Human Services announced the Friday before Christmas that Iowa would not participate in the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Summer Electronic Benefit Transfer (EBT) program in 2024. The program provides families with $40 per month, per child who qualifies for free or reduced-price school lunch, for the three months most kids are not in school. Families receive the benefits on a card they can use at any grocery store or farmers market.

Initially, Reynolds tried to frame her stance as a way to address childhood obesity, saying in the December 22 news release, “Federal COVID-era cash benefit programs are not sustainable and don’t provide long-term solutions for the issues impacting children and families. An EBT card does nothing to promote nutrition at a time when childhood obesity has become an epidemic.”

But Iowa Hunger Coalition board chair Luke Elzinga called it “incredibly insulting” to suggest “low-income Iowans can’t be trusted to make their own choices about what to feed their kids.” He added, “An abundance of academic research has made clear the link between food insecurity and obesity in the United States.”

Democrats introduced bills in both chambers that would require Iowa to participate in summer EBT. All sixteen Iowa Senate Democrats co-sponsored Senate File 2039. State Senator Jeff Edler, who chairs the Senate Health and Human Services Committee, assigned the bill to a subcommittee but never scheduled a meeting on it.

A corresponding House bill, House File 2042, would have ensured Iowa’s participation in summer EBT and added $2.8 million to “coordinate the Double Up Food Bucks program” with summer EBT. (Double Up Food Bucks creates incentives for families to use food assistance to buy fresh fruits and vegetables.) The bill was referred to the Health and Human Services Committee. State Representative Ann Meyer, who chairs that panel, never assigned it to a subcommittee.

Nebraska Governor Jim Pillen recently changed his mind and said he would accept federal funds to keep that state’s summer EBT program going. But Reynolds’ staff told reporters last week that her “decision is firm. Pandemic-era programs were not intended to be permanent. The answer isn’t creating a new government program, instead we should be investing in existing programs that work.”

Other summer meal programs are valuable, but they won’t reach all of the kids who could benefit from summer EBT. The Iowa Hunger Coalition created an interactive map and dashboard showing all summer meal sites that operated in 2023 under the two programs Reynolds wants to expand. Some counties or school districts didn’t have any meal sites. In other areas, not all needy families had a way to get their child to the site at the right time.

The dashboard also shows the number of kids who are eligible for free or reduced-price school meals in each Iowa House or Senate district.


In two points of personal privilege delivered on the Iowa House floor last month, Democratic State Representative Chuck Isenhart challenged the idea that other summer meal programs could be as effective as summer EBT. He told colleagues on January 30,

The Dubuque Community School District reports having 5,216 students eligible for free summer meals IF they can make it to the feeding sites at the right time and, of course, IF they like the food. The school district operated one program that served 240 people. The Dubuque Boys and Girls Club operated seven sites that served 700 students at least once during the summer, but not necessarily every day.

Let’s do the math. Those 940 students represented less than 18 percent of the eligible kids! And oh, by the way, it cost the Boys and Girls Club $24,000 or $25 per student to administer the program – costs unreimbursed by either the state or federal government, costs that the Boys and Girls Club had to eat.

Under the Summer EBT program, the families of 100 percent of these students could receive $40 per month per child for June, July and August to buy their own food and prepare their own meals. How is that not a better deal?

Isenhart gave Republicans another chance to keep this concept alive on February 12, when the House Agriculture Committee considered House Study Bill 560, an effort to promote Iowa agricultural products. Isenhart offered an amendment to add the summer EBT program to the bill. It failed on a party-line committee vote.

Incidentally, the Iowa Hunger Coalition disputes the governor’s characterization of summer EBT as a “pandemic” program. The organization pointed out in a December statement,

Summer EBT is the first new federal nutrition program in two decades, and was created by an act of Congress in December 2022. While similar to the Pandemic-EBT program, pilot programs for Summer EBT date back to 2011. The program provides income-eligible families with an EBT card loaded with benefits, similar to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program. Food pantries routinely see increased numbers of people seeking assistance during the summer.


Democratic State Representative Sami Scheetz recruited 20 Iowa House Republicans to co-sponsor House File 575 last year. The bill would make school breakfast and lunch free for an estimated 21,810 students across Iowa who now qualify for reduced-price meals. The nonpartisan Legislative Services Agency projected that it would cost the state just under $1.1 million to provide more than 2.9 million meals to those children.

The bill went to the House Education Committee, where State Representative Skyler Wheeler did not assign it to a subcommittee during the 2023 legislative session or this year. According to the Iowa Hunger Coalition’s dashboard, 462 kids in Wheeler’s own district would benefit from the bill.

In a February 15 news release, Scheetz slammed Republican leaders in the Iowa House who “chose to put politics over Iowa kids.”

It is unfortunate that representatives from the so-called party of family values refuse to do something as simple as feeding hungry children. This bill’s bipartisan support demonstrates that when we set aside our differences, we can deliver for families who desperately need our help.

The GOP lawmakers who co-sponsored House File 575 are State Representatives Megan Jones, Jane Bloomingdale, Shannon Lundgren, Eddie Andrews, Chad Ingels, Charley Thomson, Thomas Gerhold, Brian Lohse, Devon Wood, Brian Best, Jon Dunwell, Robert Henderson, Stan Gustafson, David Sieck, Thomas Moore, Cindy Golding, David Young, and Bobby Kaufmann. That’s nearly 30 percent of the 64-member House GOP caucus.

UPDATE: State Senator Janice Weiner introduced a more expansive bill on free school breakfast and lunch, which most Senate Democrats co-sponsored. Senate File 2060 was modeled on the income thresholds used for the governor’s “school choice” plan in 2023. The first year, schools would provide free breakfast and lunch to all children whose family income was no greater than 300 percent of the federal poverty level. The second year, the program would apply to families with income below 400 percent of the federal poverty level. In the third year and beyond, all Iowa children would qualify for free breakfast and lunch at school, regardless of family income.

The Senate Education Committee did not schedule a subcommittee meeting on Senate File 2060.


The House Judiciary Committee advanced one bill that could decrease food assistance to eligible Iowans. House File 2112 would require the Iowa Department of Health and Human Services to use the U.S. Department of Homeland Security’s Systematic Verification for Entitlements (SAVE) program to verify all non-citizens who apply for public assistance programs. Those include the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), Medicaid, the children’s health insurance program known as HAWK-I, and the Family Investment Program.

The Iowa Hunger Coalition warned that the bill “would add unnecessary barriers to access public assistance while increasing costs to the state.” The organization noted that Iowa already uses SAVE when a non-citizen’s eligibility for benefits programs can’t be verified another way. The SAVE system can delay application processing by at least seven federal workdays and up to 20 federal workdays.

Furthermore, the Iowa Hunger Coalition said House File 2112 “reinforces harmful anti-immigrant rhetoric that may prevent mixed-status households from enrolling eligible children in SNAP and other public assistance programs.” Data show that in recent years, fewer eligible citizen children living with non-citizens in Iowa have been receiving federal food assistance.

The Judiciary Committee approved this bill on February 14, mostly along party lines. GOP State Representative Jon Dunwell joined Democrats in opposing it. The measure is now eligible for Iowa House floor debate.

About the Author(s)

Laura Belin

  • being cruel to people in need

    and transferring even more of that money to the wealthy is their politics and reflects their cultural values. Tragic to see Iowa choosing to duplicate the kinds of poverty and failing infrastructures (social as well as physical) that one finds in places like Tennessee and Arkansas. While they fret about make believe figures like Satan their blind faith in the cult of Austerity is one of the real ‘evils’ of our times and many lives will be sacrificed…

  • parental responsibility?

    Is it the taxpayer’s responsibility for feeding children that aren’t mine? My family has volunteered and contributed quite generously financially to a foodbank and don’t feel it’s always the govt’s responsibility to feed everyone. Need to have some limits to free and reduced meals at public schools. Also need to more aggressively pursue deadbeat dads(and moms). If the kiddos are hungry then the parents spending, earning, and savings habits should all be scrutinized.