Amid continued Feeding Our Future fallout, Walz touts debut of ‘Summer EBT’ food program

South Dakota and Iowa are among the 15 states that chose not to accept the funding, saying the program is not sustainable and "does nothing to promote nutrition."

Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz speaks at a press conference June 14. (Office of Gov. Tim Walz/Flickr)

As the school year wound down earlier this month across Minnesota, so did the free breakfast and lunches students received via a new state-funded universal meals program that debuted last fall.

But nearly half of those students will have access to government-provided meal money during the summer months, thanks to a new federal program the Minnesota Department of Education has opted into.

Gov. Tim Walz announced late last month that Minnesota will be one of 35 states to debut a “Summer EBT” program for up to 400,000 students whose families meet federal guidelines for free or reduced lunches.

The federally-funded program kick-started across the nation this month and will provide $40 per month per child during the summer — in the form of electronic benefits transfer cards — to help low-income households pay for their meals while children are not in school. But the aid amounts to about $1.30 per day per eligible child in June, July and August.

“Summer can be difficult for families who rely on school meals to help feed their children,” said Tikki Brown, assistant commissioner for the Minnesota Department of Human Services, in a statement praising the new summer meal subsidy program. “Providing additional food support during this time can help alleviate that stress for families and ensure children can stay healthy and focused, setting them up for success all year round.”

Meal aid distributed directly to homes, instead of through non-profits

Minnesota’s participation in the “Summer EBT” program comes during the continued fallout from the Feeding Our Future fraud.

Last week the Office of the Legislative Auditor released a report that criticized the Minnesota Department of Education (MDE) for failing to take necessary oversight measures, enabling the multi-million dollar Feeding Our Future fraud scheme to persist in 2020 and 2021. And earlier this month, five of seven defendants tried in the food fraud scandal were found guilty.

Funding for the federal “Summer EBT” program amounts to more than $3 billion, which was included as a provision in the $1.7 trillion Consolidated Appropriations Spending Act of 2023 that President Joe Biden signed into law in late 2022. The program was created as pandemic-era summer EBT benefits for school-aged children expired.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture estimates that as many as 400,000 students in Minnesota could qualify and benefit from the program. The state has been allocated about $49 million for the Summer EBT program in both 2024 and 2025, under the “opt in” agreement the Walz administration signed onto late last year. As part of that agreement, the DFL-controlled legislature had already approved about $1.8 million in funding for the Minnesota Department of Education to oversee distribution and management of the Summer EBT program in Minnesota.

Families who registered with their schools as qualifying for free and reduced lunch are automatically signed up for the program, which will allow them to “purchase healthy foods with funds placed on EBT cards,” according to MDE. The funds are provided on an EBT card in the student’s name.

Walz touted the program in a press statement and on social media, saying the extra $40 a month during the summer is “making sure an estimated 400,000 kids stay full all summer and ready to learn come fall.”

“The end of the school year should not mark the start of food scarcity,” Walz said. “This program, which has been a major priority of our administration, provides a boost for families, allowing them to ensure that their children have enough food to keep them going all summer and ready to learn come fall.”

The program rolls out in Minnesota on the heels of a school year in which the Department of Education revealed that its universal school meals program will cost about $176 million more than original estimates when the DFL controlled House and Senate passed the legislation in 2023. During debate on that bill Republicans argued that a universal meals program that’s not means tested based on household income would be unsustainable in the long-term.

Fifteen states opted out of program, expressed skepticism

Last month, United States Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack said the USDA is “thrilled to be partnering with states to implement this critical component of (President Biden’s) national strategy to end hunger.”

But not all states are signing onto the program, which comes with administrative strings attached. States who opt in must manage the program separately from other existing meal or food assistance programs.

South Dakota and Iowa are among the 15 states that chose not to accept the funding. Govs. Kristi Noem and Kim Reynolds have received criticism for opting not to enroll in the program. Reynolds said in December that Iowa has its own assistance programs to ensure school children from low-income households have access to meal assistance during the summer.

“Federal COVID-era cash benefits programs are not sustainable and don’t provide long term solutions for issues impacting children and families,” Reynolds said. “An EBT card does nothing to promote nutrition at a time when childhood obesity has become an epidemic.”

Other Midwest states that have enrolled in the Summer EBT program include North Dakota, Wisconsin and Illinois.

Gov. J.B. Pritzker made a claim on social media on Monday that the Summer EBT program “will serve over 1 million young Illinoisans with nutritious meals throughout the summer.”

 

Hank Long

Hank Long is a journalism and communications professional whose writing career includes coverage of the Minnesota legislature, city and county governments and the commercial real estate industry. Hank received his undergraduate degree at the University of Minnesota, where he studied journalism, and his law degree at the University of St. Thomas. The Minnesota native lives in the Twin Cities with his wife and four children. His dream is to be around when the Vikings win the Super Bowl.