Governor's summer meal grants amount to "crumbs for Iowa kids"

Free summer meal provided by the Cedar Rapids Community School District in June 2023. Photo originally published on the school district’s Facebook page.

Governor Kim Reynolds asked state legislators this year to “join me in making literacy a top priority in every Iowa classroom.”

Judging by her approach to feeding hungry kids, the governor appears to lack basic numeracy skills.

On April 10, the governor’s office and Iowa Department of Education announced “$900,000 in competitive grants to help more Iowa children and teens access nutritious meals and snacks during the summer months.” Those federal funds, which Reynolds is drawing from the Biden administration’s American Rescue Plan, may help a few thousand more kids receive food while school is out.

But in December, Reynolds turned down $29 million in federal funding—more than 30 times the value of the new grants. Those funds from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Summer Electronic Benefit Transfer (EBT) program would have provided food assistance worth $120 to each of an estimated 240,000 Iowa children who qualify for free or reduced-price school lunches.


Thirty-seven states chose to participate in Summer EBT, which will provide $40 per eligible child per summer month in 2024 on “pre-loaded cards that families can use to purchase groceries.” Republicans lead all of the thirteen states that opted out (Alabama, Alaska, Florida, Georgia, Idaho, Iowa, Louisiana, Mississippi, Oklahoma, South Carolina, South Dakota, Texas, and Wyoming).

Reynolds’ clumsy attempt at a Friday-before-holiday-weekend news dump received national attention, because of how she justified her Scrooge-like decision to deny food assistance to needy children. In a December 22 news release, the governor asserted, “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.”

In reality, as Iowa Hunger Coalition board chair Luke Elzinga pointed out, peer-reviewed research has consistently shown a link between food security and obesity. From the Iowa Hunger Coalition’s statement denouncing the governor’s decision:

Low-income families routinely face struggles in accessing nutritious food due to its high cost. A 2021 USDA study found that the number one reported barrier from SNAP participants to eating healthier was the high cost of healthy food. Hundreds of thousands of Iowans are struggling to put food on their tables right now, and the need is especially high for families with children. An additional $120 in nutritional benefits during the summer would be a huge boon to helping these families provide healthy food for their children.


In December, Reynolds touted two “well-established programs” already used by the state Department of Education and Department of Health and Human Resources. Iowa’s new grants will expand the Summer Food Service Program and Seamless Summer Option, which Reynolds again praised as “well-established programs” in her administration’s April 10 news release.

“Providing young Iowans with access to free, nutritious meals in their communities during the summer months has always been a priority,” she claimed.

The existing programs served more than 1.6 million meals or snacks to Iowa children during the summer of 2023. That sounds like a lot, but as Democratic State Senator Sarah Trone Garriott pointed out during a Senate floor speech on April 10, those programs “assisted less than 20,000 Iowa children last year.”

Democratic State Representative Chuck Isenhart, who has been a vocal critic of the governor’s decision to reject Summer EBT, noted in an Iowa House floor speech on April 10 that $900,000 in grants would increase the $5.8 million Iowa has been spending on existing summer meal programs by only about 15 percent. He estimated that roughly 1,800 additional students might be served.

Trone Garriott explained that “the competitive grant program announced today amounts to crumbs for Iowa kids.”

While summer feeding programs have their place, they are not accessible to all Iowa families. Because families must bring their children to and from the sites every single day, which is impossible for most working families. […]

The governor could have expanded these programs AND participated in the Summer EBT program. That’s what our state really needs right now: more programs working together to make sure children are fed in a time when we are seeing record-breaking needs. But instead, she put politics before the health and well-being of our kids.

An extra $900,000 for grants works out to about 3 percent of the $29 million in federal food assistance funding that Reynolds turned down. Summer EBT would have helped some 240,000 Iowa children, whether or not they lived near a school, church, community center, park, library, and camp that offers summer meals.

Many Iowans live nowhere near one of those sites.


Isenhart reminded colleagues that twelve Iowa counties (Adams, Buchanan, Cedar, Clayton, Dickinson, Hamilton, Hancock, Keokuk, Lyon, Madison, Plymouth, and Shelby) did not have a single summer meal site in 2023. Another 21 counties had only one such site serving children in their area.

The Iowa Hunger Coalition’s School Nutrition Dashboard confirms Isenhart’s calculations:

Isenhart mused that Republican legislators from those areas may want to “sharpen your pencils” and help their school districts apply for some of the $900,000.

The state says the new grant program will prioritize “applicants that establish a new open meal site,” which “must be located in an area where at least 50 percent or more of the children are eligible for free or reduced-price meals.” Sponsor organizations “that did not operate in 2023 or are in a county with two or fewer current meal sites will also be given stronger consideration,” according to the April 10 news release.

Democratic State Representative Sami Scheetz, who has led efforts in the Iowa House to expand free school breakfasts and lunches, slammed the Reynolds initiative as “ill-conceived” and “a labyrinth of red tape.” From his written statement:

The new grant program introduced by the Governor is a convoluted mess that sets up unnecessary barriers for access to food. It relies heavily on local organizations to step up and fill gaps, demanding that they jump through hoops for funding that still might not meet all logistical needs, especially in rural or underserved areas. The plan ostensibly aims to use local farms and vendors, but this adds another layer of complexity and fails to guarantee that children will actually receive the meals they need. It’s a classic example of bureaucracy at its worst — lots of promises with little potential for real-world effectiveness. We’re trading a direct, proven method for fighting hunger with a scattered approach that leaves too much to chance and too many children behind.

Incidentally, groups have until 11:59 pm on May 7 to apply for the grants.

Eligible current and new sponsors that plan to add open meal sites may apply for reimbursement funding for up to $10,000 for the first new site and $5,000 for each additional site. Current sponsors may apply for a total of $20,000, and new sponsors can apply for up to $30,000. Sponsors who did not participate in 2023 and intend to provide meals to targeted groups may also apply for up to $2,500 per site. Allowable reimbursement costs will include items such as local food purchases, program outreach and other operational expenses not currently covered through program reimbursement.  

Remember, the Summer EBT program would have reached 240,000 children, in every corner of Iowa, without a complicated application process or deadline.

About the Author(s)

Laura Belin

  • No Surprise

    The GOP says no

  • Is she just being cynical

    I’m beginning to truly believe that Reynolds is just bashing people and children who are not perfect like she would like them to be. Maybe more like her picture perfect family? They are so well posed and properly dressed all the time. I really believe she thinks her s–t doesn’t have a bad aroma. I’m sorry if this goes against guidelines but it’s honestly what I am seeing and how I feel.

  • The problem with the Cedar Rapids school lunch

    Wherever the money comes from, our schools will keep serving junk food to the students. Look at the processed corn dog and raw veggies in the picture. Our kids deserve real food cooked in real kitchens, and it takes more than money to change this sorry state of the matters.

  • No title

    I suspect the real reason behind this move is because when we help each other make people’s lives better its another argument for why actually governing well is preferable to chaos and breaking stuff.