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Tennessee plans only one year of extra federal summer food aid program for kids

The Tennessee governor's office says it only plans to participate for one year in a federal program that gives low-income families $40 per child per month to pay for food while school is out

Jonathan Mattise
Friday 02 February 2024 19:29 GMT
Summer Food Program Tennessee
Summer Food Program Tennessee (Copyright 2023 The Associated Press. All rights reserved)

Tennessee only plans to participate for one year in a federal program that gives low-income families $40 per child per month to pay for food while school is out, the governor's office said Friday.

Tennessee is among 35 states, all five U.S. territories and four tribes that have opted into the Summer Electronic Benefits Transfer program, or Summer EBT, for this summer. Fifteen other states, all currently with Republican governors, won’t be participating.

Officials in President Joe Biden's administration say the money is meant to supplement existing programs during the summer that have had a more limited reach.

In announcing Tennessee doesn't plan to keep the benefit after one summer, Republican Gov. Bill Lee's office echoed arguments from some of the states not participating, saying the initiative stemmed from a pandemic-era benefit and that other food assistance programs are in place.

“Tennessee enrolled in the Summer EBT program for FFY24 to ensure that families who depend on the benefits are served while the state returns to utilizing preexisting programs to meet the nutritional needs of children during summer months,” said Elizabeth Johnson, a spokesperson for Lee. "Established during the pandemic, Summer EBT was intended to supplement existing food assistance programs in extraordinary circumstances. We do not intend to enroll in future years.”

Signe Anderson, senior director of nutrition advocacy at the nonprofit Tennessee Justice Center, said Summer EBT helps fill gaps in existing food programs for families who need help when school isn't in session. She said she's grateful Tennessee will offer the benefit this summer, but is extremely disappointed officials appear to be ruling out further participation.

“I think it is a mistake to not continue with Summer EBT in 2025 and beyond,” Anderson said in an interview. “And we will continue to advocate on behalf of the families that could use the extra money to buy groceries for their kids.”

In December 2022, Congress made Summer EBT permanent starting in 2024 after the U.S. Department of Agriculture had tested it for several years. The states that chose not to opt in for this summer can still join for summer 2025, the USDA has said. Participating states will have to secure funding to pay half of their administrative costs.

The money will be on an EBT card, accepted at stores that also take Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits.

Some states who are not participating have used the denial to make statements about COVID-19 relief programs or welfare in general — Nebraska Gov. Jim Pillen, for one, said, "I don’t believe in welfare.” Others cited logistical hurdles and left the door open to participating in future years.

Under the federal program, some 644,000 Tennessee children can receive $77.3 million more in aid this summer, creating a multiplied economic impact, according to the USDA Food and Nutrition Service.

All 50 states administer the existing Summer Food Service Program, which provides sites where kids can eat for free. Last month, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack told The Associated Press he’s worried that that program doesn’t “provide the help for all the children, no matter how well-intentioned it is.”

Tennessee, meanwhile, has drawn attention for its recent openness to losing federal money.

The state rebuffed roughly $9 million in federal HIV funding in January 2023 so it could refuse to fund Planned Parenthood. Months later, it was also disqualified from receiving more than $7 million under the Title X family planning program due to Tennessee's policies for those clinics not to discuss abortion referrals because of its abortion ban. In both instances, the state backfilled the funding, but the federal government circumvented the state to directly fund organizations like Planned Parenthood.

Additionally, lawmakers have flirted with becoming the first state to reject all federal K-12 education funding — some $1.8 billion annually — over LGBTQ+ protections, testing rules and other mandates. Lawmakers studying the issue ultimately didn't call for rejecting the money.

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