Mississippi opts out of federal summer food program, Reeves cites opposition to ‘welfare state’ expansion

Published 9:15 am Friday, January 12, 2024

Gov. Tate Reeves’ office says Mississippi won’t participate in a federal summer food program for children because of his desire to reject “attempts to expand the welfare state.”

But officials at the state’s welfare agency that Reeves oversees, which participated in a similar federal program earlier in the pandemic, offered a different reason for opting out of the program: a lack of state resources to administer it.

The Summer EBT program would provide the families of students who receive free or reduced lunch during the school year with electronic benefit transfer (EBT) cards that can be used to purchase groceries in the summer. For each eligible child, families would receive $40 per month for a total of $120.

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Thirty-five states, all five U.S. territories, and four Tribes will be participating in the program for its first year, which the U.S. Department of Agriculture said it expects will benefit nearly 21 million children. The other states that have opted out include Alabama, Alaska, Florida, Georgia, Iowa, Louisiana, Nebraska, Oklahoma, South Carolina, South Dakota, Texas, Vermont and Wyoming.

Mississippi previously administered the pandemic EBT program, which gave a similar summer benefit and provided assistance during the school year if school was conducted primarily virtually or hybrid for at least one month. The cost of running the pandemic-era program was covered fully by the federal government but the new summer version would require states to cover half of the administrative expenses, something other states have pointed to as a reason not to participate.

“Both (the Mississippi Department of Education) and (the Mississippi Department of Human Services) lack the resources, including workforce capacity and funding, to support a Summer EBT Program,” said Mark Jones, a DHS spokesperson.

Republican governors in some other states have also said they chose not to participate in the program because of their opposition to expanding federal benefits, according to Chalkbeat.

Democratic Congressman Bennie Thompson directly blamed Reeves for the state opting out of the program in a statement his office released Thursday.

“Shame on Tate Reeves for refusing essential food assistance for eligible children during the summer,” he said. “These federal funds would have provided crucial support for parents and guardians to ensure their child or children are adequately fed throughout the summer.  Unfortunately, the repercussions of the governor opting Mississippi out of this new program casts a significant burden on multiple families.”

Reeves’ spokesperson Shelby Wilcher, asked for comment about whether Reeves made the decision to opt out of the federal program, countered by pointing to the existing programs that help feed children in the summer.

“It’s disingenuous for Representative Thompson to insinuate that children won’t get the support they need by not participating in something that was originally intended to be a temporary pandemic-era program,” she said.

The Mississippi Department of Education said it would continue to administer the Summer Food Service Program, which serves meals on-site in low-income communities.