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Arkansas opts-in to a new federal summer food program for children

Governor Sarah Huckabee Sanders announced that Arkansas would be opting into a new program that aims to fight food insecurity for children. The program is called the Summer Electronic Benefit Transfer, which will provide assistance to buy food during the summer months for eligible children in Arkansas. Matthew Moore spoke to Kathy Webb, the CEO of Arkansas Hunger Relief Alliance, last week over Zoom. He asked her how big of a deal this was for Arkansas.

Kathy Webb: It's huge. I've been involved with the Hunger Relief Alliance for over a decade, about 15 years as a board member and then as CEO, and it's one of the biggest things I've ever been involved in. It's wonderful for Arkansas children and families.

Matthew Moore: Can you talk more about kind of what the program looks like and and how it will impact students in Arkansas?

KW: Yes, and can I can I give you a little bit of context? Would that be okay?

MM: Yes, please!

KW: One of the main components of the Arkansas No Kid Hungry campaign —which the Alliance is the lead partner in Arkansas — is to try to expand access to meals for kids live, learn and play. And so one of our big areas of focus over the years has been expanding school meals, which we had huge success in 2023 with the bill that eliminated the copay for reduced price kids. That meant that 49,000 more children were eligible for no costs breakfast and lunch every day. That's massive, a huge win. And for about the same number of years, we've worked with Senator Boozman and other elected officials to try to make summer meals more accessible for kids. Because when you think about it, all of these kids who rely on school meals — especially if you rely on breakfast and lunch in the summer — kids are hungry, and it's a huge strain on family budgets and it is a lot of increase traffic for the charitable food network that we're not always able to meet. So for all of those reasons, expanding access in the summer is really important. And we've done a variety of things over the years.

During the pandemic one of the programs that they tried was to allow those families who qualified for school meals to add money to a card that looks like a SNAP card and EBT card because not every county, especially in rural counties, has a location where kids can go to get a meal, or they don't have transportation for kids to get there. So Senator Boozman got this in law in December that this was going to be possible, but states had the opt in. So by opting in, not only does it mean a huge benefit for folks who are working but not always able to make ends meet, it's a huge benefit to the community. Because these are dollars that will be spent immediately at the local level. So it can benefit the grocery stores, benefit Arkansas farmers, Arkansas producers, and it means that people will take those EBT cards and use them at the local level. And one of the things we saw during the pandemic was that having this benefit also improved the diets of families. It's a huge win for Arkansas kids and families. It's a win for the state. It's very exciting.

MM: As you said that the states have to opt into this program. Folks may have seen in the news that two states, Nebraska and Iowa, both rejected offers to be a part of this program. I saw online that some Arkansans were concerned that their state would be another name on that list. Was that ever a worry that you had? [Editor's note: Oklahoma announced they would not be opting in to this plan after the recording of this interview.]

KW: Texas did not opt in, neither did Florida. The reality is I've met with the governor a lot over the course of the last two and a half years. We always meet with candidates when they're running for office. And one of the areas that she's always expressed a lot of interest in is feeding kids. You know, she's got kids and feeding kids has been something that that she really has been interested in. She was helpful with the bill that was passed in the legislature. We had a good conversation about this program. And I was always hopeful that she would opt in.

MM: Perhaps the additional advantage of having Senator John Boozman be a part of this process played a big role in that too. And, you know, he thanked your organization specifically in the press release about this program. And so, I imagine that probably helped with the process too, right?

KW: I don't think we can underestimate how important Senator Boozman's influence is on hunger issues in general. He has been a good friend and a good supporter over the years. And one of the things I like about Senator Boozman is when he sees something that doesn't work, He's tries something else. And I think this is something that's really going to make a difference for Arkansas kids in the summer. You know, I've been involved in the political arena besides the nonprofit arena, but I gotta give it to Senator Boozman and Governor Sanders on this. It's huge.

MM: So maybe walk us through a little bit of logistics: what does it look like for a student who qualifies for this program? Do we know at this point what it will look like for a student come the summer months to take advantage of this program?

KW: Well, that's one of the things that we're going to be working on very quickly. [On Tuesday, January 2nd], I was able to communicate with the Department of Human Services, and it will be the Department of Human Services and the Department of Ed jointly working on this. DHS primarily because they oversee the federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program. Secretary Putnam indicated that we would be having a meeting soon, because the alliance has offered its assistance.

Sign up will be through the school districts, but we want to make sure that everybody who's eligible signs up, and we have some experience in assisting school districts in that regard. We've done it the last two years coming out of the pandemic. Families had to sign up again, for school meals that they didn't have to join the pandemic. So we had a lot of success in assisting the Department of Ed, and we look forward to working with the Department of Ed and DHS, and providing assistance and incentives whatever they need, if we can help sign people up, because they'll be critical to get as many folks signed up as possible.

MM: Arkansas is the most food insecure state in America, according to data from the USDA. How do you see a program like this affecting that statistic for Arkansas?

KW: I think it can have a big impact just like the bill that was passed in the legislature this set this last session that obviously passed after the survey was done with those terrible numbers for Arkansas. Senator Boozman got another federal program and passed for summer for non-congregate areas that we saw huge successes across rural areas in Arkansas this summer. And so I think as we continue to see a variety of programs that may be have been around but that are now tweaked and are going to be more accessible to rural Arkansans. I think we can see those numbers changing over the course of the next couple of years. And then the other reality is that Arkansas has always been a state that has a fair amount of poverty. So we can do all the things that we can do. And I think the governor is showing and Senator Boozman is showing that through these anti hunger programs. But then on the other side, we've got to continue to raise wages and things like that, that are a little bit out of our wheelhouse.

MM: You’re talking about making it more accessible for people. I didn't I grew up in Arkansas, but I grew up in a very rural part of southeastern Illinois, where I lived 30 miles from the closest grocery store. I never had any issues getting to a grocery store, but I knew people who did. We've also had in the past summer programs where churches or community centers or places will have food programs. Do you imagine that having this implemented as essentially a debit card that people can use at the grocery store when they go to pick up their groceries, how does that make that easier or more accessible than, say, alternatives that we've done before?

KW: Well, I think it's not either or, I think it's both. You mentioned being from a rural area. So this past summer, instead of a kid going to a community center or a school and eating one meal, and then having to go back the next day figuring out how to get there. Instead of figuring out if there is a school or a community center in my town that's going to have one, families were able to go to a central location and pick up ten meals for the week. In Russellville, they did that this summer. They thought that Sunday afternoons would be a time when more people would be off work. And for example, on the Sunday before the Fourth of July between 2:00pm - 4:00pm. They served 900 kids who went there and got 10 meals for the week. That's 9000 meals in two hours. And so that was also thanks to Senator Boozman.

So between alternatives like that, and now the summer EBT program, both of those are game changers for Arkansas, and we visited a lot of places last summer and rural Arkansas that implemented that non-congregate meal program and saw the number of meals increased by 60% and more.

MM: It's fascinating because I think a lot of people think that, Well, this doesn't work as well as we want it to. So we're going to try this instead. But what you are saying is no, do this in addition to so it's really not just deciding which one works the best is deciding how do we do something else. If you're looking at a Venn diagram, you're not seeing a ton of overlapping circles, you're essentially making the circles bigger, right?

KW: Yeah, and I think I mean, if when you look at the non congregate rural meals that started this summer, you add to that summer EBT I mean, huge impact. Arkansas kids and family huge.

MM: You recently announced that you're stepping down as CEO of Arkansas Hunger Relief Alliance at the end of this month. You were the first openly gay person to serve in the Arkansas General Assembly. You've served on the Little Rock City Board you were named an Arkansas top influencer by Talk Business and Politics. You have a pretty incredible legacy for the work you've done. In the state of Arkansas. What do you hope people must remember from the work that you've done?

KW: I'll tell you yesterday is one of the best days of my life. When this announcement was made, I hope it was just never give up. Never give up. Because everybody can make a difference and just keep our our motto last year was to be bold. And that's what we did. And I think it's really paying off for Arkansas kids and families.

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Matthew Moore is senior producer for Ozarks at Large.
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