One state declined to employ a federal option to provide free meals during the summer. Numerous children suffered the price.

As a result, Missouri children received dramatically fewer meals than they did last summer at certain sites, according to community operators across the state who spoke to NBC News.

Meal servers reported feeling their hands were tied by the staff. Operators of meal sites that violate the federally supported program’s rules forfeit their organizations’ reimbursement for the meals they provide. However, they insisted that it was obvious that not everyone who required food was getting it.

The Adair County Family YMCA provided meals to more than 15 locations in Kirksville this summer, and Lathen Elschlager works there. He was in the mobile home park where youngsters eat their lunches on perfectly mowed grass, where the father had driven on a recent Wednesday without his kids. Elschlager claimed that he was accustomed to seeing the father come by once a week with his children.

Image: Lathen Elschlager.

Elschlager claimed that it hurts. You are aware of his family. But the laws apply.

When school is out, the Summer Food Service Program is praised for giving youngsters in need of nutrition across America. The program has limitations despite having seen only a few updates since 1968, when it was first introduced.

Meal sites weren’t permitted before to the pandemic unless 50% or more of the local school population was eligible for free or reduced lunch, which anti-hunger campaigners claimed left out too many kids who weren’t getting enough food at home.

The rules also restricted the hours at which meals may be provided and stipulated that kids must eat at the meal locations, two restrictions that frequently conflicted with families’ schedules or their transportation requirements.

Congress granted the U.S. Agriculture Department the right to provide child nutrition waivers in March 2020. They have already issued scores of waivers, some of which have relaxed the rules about meal times and allowed parents to pick up meals without their kids. The summer meal staff could package meals to go, allowing providers to send families home with enough food for several days without them having to come back every day at the same time.

Image: Food for meals at the Adair County Family YMCA in Kirksville, Mo., on Aug. 16, 2022.

These exemptions, along with another that was far broader and had allowed all children to get free lunches at public schools for the previous two years, were all slated to expire in June. As a result, summer food program administrators around the nation started mandating that kids take their meals there this summer.

With the passing of hurried legislation at the end of June that provided states the option of extending summer meal waivers, they were granted a reprieve. Not all program operators were able to go back to grab-and-go meals because school was out and summer was in many locations already well under way.

Image: Terri Martin and Shannon Bundridge pack the day's meals at the Adair County Family YMCA in Kirksville, Mo, on Aug.16, 2022.

The only state that did not provide all of its meal programs the option to apply for the grab-and-go extended waiver was Missouri, according to information obtained by NBC News after reaching out to authorities in all 50 states.

A CASE STUDY OF POSSIBLE NATIONAL EVENTS

In some situations, far fewer children received meals this summer as a result of Missouri’s choice to ignore the eased standards.

Last summer, employees at the Tri-State Family YMCA in Neosho provided around 9,800 meals every week. Without the waiver extension, that dropped to just over 300 a week, a 97% decrease, according to CEO Benjamin Coffey.

According to CEO Jeffrey Snyder, the Osage Prairie YMCA in Nevada, Missouri, had an almost 92% decrease in the number of children it served from 2,400 per week last summer to 200 this summer. He claimed that because families received many grab-and-go meals at once last summer, the decrease in meals is even more pronounced.

Anti-hunger groups claim that these figures more likely represent a lack of access to food for families than a lack of need, and they warn that Missouri is a case study for what could happen to the rest of the nation next summer.

According to Lisa Davis, senior vice president of the program at Share Our Strength, a nonprofit organization that works to alleviate hunger and poverty, six out of every seven children who would have needed summer meals were not receiving them before the pandemic.

Modernizing the summer meals program is long overdue.
No Kid Hungry Campaign, Lisa Davis
Modernizing the summer meals program is long overdue, she claimed.

According to her, many kids do not have access to transportation to summer meal venues or are unable to attend during the designated time slots. Additionally, the weather might be a problem because most outdoor venues must occasionally close due to storms or extreme heat.

We are aware of the legislative options available to end child hunger. During the pandemic, we tested them, Davis said. However, we were taking them away and attempting to return to a sense of normalcy that wasn’t working for a large number of families and a large number of children.

WHY MISSOURI DIDN’T CHOOSE TO JOIN

According to Sarah Walker, the bureau chief of community food and nutrition support for the Missouri Department of Health and Senior Services, the decision to mandate eating meals on-site, officially known as congregate feeding, was made for pragmatic reasons.

We were at the height of the pandemic and Covid-19 operations were underway when we initially decided to accept the exemptions, she said.

Republican governor Mike Parson, in March, declared the state’s public health crisis to be over and that Missouri would stop using emergency measures as of April 1. This influenced the choice of summertime meals, according to Walker.

When the governor proclaimed an endemic, our state resumed operating very much regularly. Therefore, Walker explained in a July phone conversation, “we were able to infer that it was acceptable for folks to have congregate-setting lunches and things like that.

However, in contrast to previous summers when noncongregate feeding was permitted due to Covid-related health concerns, the prolonged waivers widened the situations in which to-go meals were allowed. The USDA claimed in an email that it did not specifically describe the COVID-19-related restriction on congregate food service.

When a software isn’t functioning normally, it’s incredibly challenging to maintain its integrity.
Sarah Walker, director of the community food and nutrition aid division at the Missouri Department of Health and Senior Services
Another issue, according to Walker, is ensuring that meals for takeout arrive at the proper location.

When a program isn’t functioning normally, it’s quite challenging to retain its integrity, she claimed. If the kids aren’t present, it’s not always possible to confirm that they are receiving meals rather than eating while sitting down, but you can always be confident that the child is receiving the meal.

The Adair County Family YMCA’s Misti Hollenbeck-Harris, director of membership, wellness, and fitness, said her staff didn’t fret that kids wouldn’t eat the grab-and-go meals.

The majority of the time, the kids were with the parents, and frequently, she added, the kids would start eating before the parents even got in the car.

Image: Misti Hollenbeck-Harris at the Adair County Family YMCA in Kirksville, Mo., on Aug. 16, 2022.

The only state that does not provide grab-and-go lunches is Missouri, according to Kelli Jones, director of communications at Parsons.

There is no denying, though, that Missouri’s children received a lot of meals. The Department of Health and Senior Services, which is in charge of sites run by nonprofit organizations like the YMCA and Boys and Girls Clubs, camps, and faith-based organizations, and the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, which is responsible for distributing meals to schools under a different federal program called the Seamless Summer Option, are the two state agencies in charge of summer meals.

According to information provided by both departments to NBC News, while community nonprofit organizations were subject to pre-pandemic regulations, the education department chose to apply for waivers that allowed for grab-and-go meals and no time restrictions at its 2,227 school sites. In contrast, the health department’s 1,108 summer meal sites operated with the restrictions.

Meal locations that could resume grab-and-go meals did so in other states and reaped the rewards.

Sonia Alcntara-Antoine, CEO of the Baltimore County Public Library, stated that although the number of meals served only increased by 25 per day after grab-and-go services were introduced at 10 locations in late July, it had a significant impact.

She said that many branches run out of food before the end of each day, so giving families the option of dining on-site or taking it with them simply helps many of our families, who are, to be honest, just very busy.

Takeout lunches saved time for those in charge of the websites as well. According to chief operating officer Jeanne Sherlock, the MetroWest YMCA in Framingham, Massachusetts, began offering one meal at a time five days a week at a park. She claimed that during the summer of last year, workers only had to visit the park three days a week and could feed visitors for several days at a time.

Before we starting packing numerous meals together in to-go boxes this summer, we were spending twice as long distributing a third of the meals, she added.

The number of meals distributed by YMCA personnel in Kirksville, Missouri, decreased from more than 11,000 in July 2021 to 5,000 this July. They took advantage of the lack of a to-go option by reading, playing checkers, Connect 4, bean bag toss, and other games with young children who were eating.

Image: Erin McAlvany at a meal site in Kirksville, Mo. on Aug.16, 2022.

Two parks that provide meal sites are about five blocks apart from Erin McAlvany and her family’s home. About once every week, she brought the kids over.

She claimed that having grab-and-go last summer was a fantasy. If the weather was nice, we could eat and play, but we also had the option to go.

Sites without a play area were particularly challenging because there was no grab-and-go alternative. Staff members indicated that dinner times at mobile home parks, for instance, could be difficult because there is no playground and occasionally no shade.

Image: Erin McAlvany's family receives meals at a meal site in Kirksville, Mo. on Aug.16, 2022.
Image: Erin McAlvany's family plays at a meal site in Kirksville, Mo., on Aug. 16, 2022.

Children do not want to simply take them and sit down 20 feet from their homes. According to Elschlager, they want to enter and eat at their home.

Seven-child mother Emily Gillaspy, who also has three foster children, said she used to pick up grab-and-go meals for her kids last summer but was unable to attend meals this year.

She added that a nearby food bank had helped. “One meal may radically impact my food budget, so not having grab-and-go, it does make a dent,” she said.

AN ENCOURAGEMENT TO ACT BEFORE NEXT SUMMER To assist feed more children, there are congressional initiatives. A House committee in July advanced a child nutrition reauthorization plan that calls for making a number of federal child nutrition programs permanently different.

While the Healthy Meals, Healthy Kids Act does not contain a provision to make grab-and-go meals permanent, it does contain other provisions to expand summer meals. For example, the area eligibility requirement was lowered so that communities could participate in free summer meals if 40% of children qualified for free and reduced lunch rather than 50%. Additionally, instead of setting a limit of only two meals each day, it would allow locations to provide up to three.

Coolers and a sign at the Adair County Family YMCA in Kirksville, Mo., this month.

However, there has been little progress made on the bill, and no Senate version has been submitted.

The Keep Kids Fed Act’s sponsor and ranking member of the Senate Agriculture, Nutrition, and Forestry Committee, Sen. John Boozman, R-Ark., argued that the epidemic demonstrated the need for continued funding for grab-and-go meals.

Noncongregate feeding is the only thing that makes sense, he stated.

He asserted that the Keep Kids Fed Act, the legislation that extended the federal waivers in June, was successful in passing swiftly because of its specific emphasis and that a solo bill would have a stronger chance of making grab-and-go meals permanent.

He continued, “I think we would have a far better chance of actually having legislation approved if a future bill were particularly focused on non-congregate feeding.”

Boozman said there was a strong chance it might be completed in the upcoming year but did not give a specific deadline.

I strongly support extending necessary summer meals for children and look forward to including this funding as we work to reauthorize our child nutrition programs, said Sen. Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., a cosponsor of the Keep Kids Fed Act and the chairwoman of the Senate Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry Committee.

It is unacceptable that a program designed to feed children during the summer months only serves one out of every seven children.
No Kid Hungry by Lisa Davis

Davis of No Kid Hungry asked Congress to prioritize feeding children, stating that the investment pays out in terms of health care, education, and other aspects of kids’ lives.

She criticized the Summer Food Service Program’s pre-pandemic style as being insufficient.

Image: Children follow as Christina Pinkerton and Shannon Bundridge take food for the Summer Eats to the picnic area in Kirksville, Mo., as on Aug. 16, 2022.

She said that it was unacceptable that a program designed to feed children during the summer months only served one out of every seven children. That is simply unacceptable.

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