South Dakota Seeks Sponsors for Food Program Amidst Declining Funding Source

Following the rejection of federal funding for summer child food vouchers, the South Dakota Department of Education is seeking sponsors for an alternative program that provides summer meals to children in need. The sponsors will provide meals to children who qualify for free or reduced-price lunch during the school year, and they will be reimbursed by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Sponsorships are available for several counties, including Bennett, Bon Homme, Buffalo, Charles Mix, Custer, Gregory, McCook, Meade, Oglala Lakota, and Stanley. Interested sponsors must complete a screening survey by Feb. 1 to be considered.

The state’s decision to refuse $7.5 million in food vouchers for more than 60,000 children in the summer of 2023 has led to the search for alternative sponsors. The funding was offered through a separate USDA program called Pandemic Electronic Benefits Transfer (EBT), which was launched during the pandemic and made permanent this year. South Dakota was one of seven states that chose to opt out of the program. Unlike the summer food program that is currently seeking sponsors, the summer EBT program does not require meals to be provided at specific locations. Instead, eligible families receive EBT cards worth $40 per child per month, which can be used to purchase fresh or packaged food.

The South Dakota Department of Education signed up for the pandemic EBT program in 2020 and 2021, but decided not to participate in 2022 and 2023. The governor’s spokesperson cited South Dakota’s low unemployment rate, existing food programs, and administrative burden as the reasons for declining the federal dollars. However, critics argue that turning away funding for hungry children is indefensible.

In response to the denial of federal funds, the South Dakota arm of the nonprofit group Bread for the World has urged residents to call on Governor Noem and Education Secretary Joe Graves to accept the funds for the next summer. They believe that neither the site-based summer food program nor the summer EBT program alone are sufficient to meet the nutritional needs of children. According to a report from the Food Research & Action Center, only 5.5% of children who receive free or reduced-price school lunch are fed through site-based programs. The debate over school lunch funding is expected to continue in the 2024 session of the legislature, with lawmakers considering various proposals.

State Representative Kadyn Wittman, who introduced a bill in the 2023 session to provide free school lunch to all children, expressed her frustration with a private donor having to cover unpaid lunch balances. She believes that it should be the government’s responsibility to ensure that no child goes hungry during the school day. While her previous bill did not pass, she plans to introduce a scaled-back version in the 2024 session. The new proposal would offer free meals to students who currently qualify for reduced-price lunches by reimbursing schools for the charges. The cost of the new bill is estimated to be $578,916 annually. Another legislator, Representative Fred Deutsch, had planned to introduce a bill to pay for lunch for K-8 students who qualify for free or reduced-price lunch, but he has since decided not to pursue it due to budget concerns.

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