South Dakota Seeks Food Program Sponsors After Declining Separate Funding Source

$7.5 million for hungry kids left on table in 2023 as school lunch debate looms

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After the state turned down federal funding for summertime child food vouchers, the South Dakota Department of Education is seeking sponsors for another program that provides summer meals to needy children.

Sponsors feed kids who qualify for free or reduced price lunch during the school year, and the U.S. Department of Agriculture reimburses sponsors. According to a Wednesday news release, sponsorships are available for Bennett, Bon Homme, Buffalo, Charles Mix, Custer, Gregory, McCook, Meade, Oglala Lakota, and Stanley counties.

Potential sponsors must complete a screening survey by Feb. 1 to be considered.

The ask comes after South Dakota’s decision not to deliver $7.5 million in food vouchers to more than 60,000 kids in the summer of 2023.

That money was available through a separate USDA program called Pandemic Electronic Benefits Transfer (EBT), launched during the pandemic and made permanent this year.

South Dakota was one of seven states to opt out.

Unlike the summer food program now seeking brick-and-mortar hosts for meals, the summer EBT doesn’t tie food aid to location. Instead, it offers EBT cards worth $40 per child per month to eligible families through the summer, which can be used to buy fresh or packaged food, but not hot foods.

The state signed on for pandemic EBT in 2020 and 2021, but not in 2022 or 2023.

Gov. Kristi Noem’s spokesperson, Ian Fury, told South Dakota New Watch in August that because of “South Dakota’s record low unemployment rate, our robust existing food programs, and the administrative burden associated with running this program, we declined these particular federal dollars.”

The site-based summer food program is not meant to be the only way to provide meals to kids when school’s out, said Nancy Van Der Weide, spokesperson for the Department of Education.

“It is a stop-gap to help those kids who fall through the cracks — the ones who, for whatever reason, are not able to access food via SNAP,” she said via email, referring to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program.

Offering food, as opposed to money for food, “ensures that the meals these children eat are balanced and nutritious, and that meals are available throughout the month rather than until the money runs out.”

“Doing it this way also ensures that money is used efficiently for food that goes to children first. Many schools also operate summer feeding programs from their buildings to achieve the same ends.”

Critics: Denying funds indefensible

The programs are not an either/or proposition, however. The state could take advantage of both if it chose to. While the pandemic EBT program is over and the deadline for the first 2024 summer EBT is fast approaching, USDA guidance says that states could opt in to the program in future years.

The South Dakota arm of the nonprofit group Bread for the World has urged state residents to ask Gov. Noem and Education Secretary Joe Graves to accept the funds for next summer.

The site-based summer food program is helpful but doesn’t touch all South Dakotans, the organization says, particularly those unable to access meal sites.

“Neither program by itself is enough to cover a child’s nutritional needs,” the organization’s website says. “Kids need both.”

Cathy Brechtelsbauer, Bread for the World South Dakota’s leader, cited a report from the Food Research & Action Center that says just 5.5% of the children who receive free or reduced price school lunch are fed through site-based programs.

Turning away funding is indefensible, according to Brechtelsbauer.

“How can they turn down food for kids who are hungry?” she said.

She was among the signatories of a Nov. 20 letter urging the state to reverse course on the EBT funds. The other name on the letter was Xanna Burg, Director of South Dakota Kids Count.

“South Dakota has not yet committed for 2024,” the letter reads. “There is still time to commit so that school-age children will not miss out on critical nutrition support during the hungriest time of the year.”

Thirty-nine other organizations are listed on the letter. Among them: Augustana University, the American Heart Association, Sioux Falls Thrive, the Boys and Girls Club of Standing Rock, South Dakota Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics and the Episcopal Diocese of South Dakota.

Fury, the governor’s spokesman, told South Dakota Searchlight via text on Thursday that he stands by the administration’s earlier explanation for declining the federal funds.

Brechtelsbauer called the reference to federal requirements and administrative burdens a smokescreen.

“Forty-three other states did this, so we could figure out how to do it in South Dakota,” Brechtelsbauer said. “If we can’t, we’ve got a much bigger problem.”

School lunch debate looms for 2024 session

The question of who ought to pay to feed hungry kids has become a recurring one for lawmakers and their communities in recent years.

Earlier this week, the Sioux Falls School District announced that it had secured a donor to cover unpaid balances for 1,800 students whose parents hadn’t kept up with school lunch payments. Sioux Falls Simplified reported that the debt from unpaid lunch accounts has accrued at about $3,000 a day. Without the donor, the district could have ended the year with as much as $500,000 in school lunch debt.

Moving forward, kids whose lunch accounts fall $20 in the red will be served a sack lunch. A $75 negative balance will cut off meals altogether.

State Rep. Kadyn Wittman, D-Sioux Falls, who brought a bill in the 2023 session that would have offered free school lunch to all children regardless of income, took to X (formerly Twitter) to express her consternation over news of a private donor paying off lunch debt.

“That should be the government’s responsibility,” she wrote. “It is cruel and, frankly, unbelievable that South Dakota kids can go hungry during the day if their parents fall behind on payments.”

Her bill to provide free school lunch for all failed in the House Education Committee. The Department of Education opposed the bill.

Wittman plans to introduce a “scaled back” version of the bill in the 2024 session.

“Last year’s bill was way too optimistic. I realize that South Dakota is not ready to offer free school lunches,” Wittman said.

Rather than cover school lunch for all, her new proposal would essentially offer free meals to students who currently qualify for reduced price lunches by reimbursing schools for the reduced price charges. Families whose incomes are between 135% and 185% of the federal poverty line qualify for reduced price lunch; those with incomes lower than 135% of the poverty line qualify for free lunch.

Wittman is hopeful that a coalition of supporters will help move her fellow lawmakers to support the bill, which is estimated to cost $578,916 annually – millions less than last year’s proposal.

According to a pre-session information sheet on the bill, its cosponsors will include Tyler Tordsen, R-Sioux Falls, Sen. Liz Larson, D-Sioux Falls, and Sen. Mike Rohl, R-Aberdeen.

At least one other school lunch proposal will not appear before lawmakers in 2024, however.

Rep. Fred Deutsch, R-Florence, had signaled plans to introduce a bill, according to the Argus Leader, that would have paid for lunch for K-8 students who qualify for free or reduced price lunch.

Deutsch has since decided not to pursue the bill. The lawmaker told South Dakota Searchlight that concerns about a leaner budget, signaled by Gov. Noem in her weekly column in late October, have convinced him to table the proposal for now.

“Given our budget tightness, I thought this was probably not the year to bring it,” Deutsch said.

South Dakota Searchlight is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. South Dakota Searchlight maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Seth Tupper for questions: info@southdakotasearchlight.com. Follow South Dakota Searchlight on Facebook and Twitter.

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