KHI: Kansas near bottom in summer food program

By Andy Marso
July 18, 2015

Half of Kansas kids now qualify for free- and reduced-price lunches during the school year. But only about 7 percent of those kids participate in summer food programs that keep them fed when school is out, according to a presentation this week at the 2015 Kansas Conference on Poverty.

The session on “Strategies to End Hunger in Kansas” was led by Hilary Gee, a health policy analyst for the Topeka nonprofit Kansas Action for Children, and Rebekah Gaston, the childhood hunger initiative director for Kansas Appleseed, a legal group that advocates on behalf of children.

They said Kansas ranks 50th out of all states and the District of Columbia — ahead of only Oklahoma — in summer food program participation and not much better in other child nutrition areas.

“Kansas has pretty low participation in a number of federal nutrition programs,” Gee said. Twenty percent of Kansas kids are considered “food insecure,” according to Gee and Gaston. Yet the state ranks 46th in participation in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, commonly known as food stamps, and 34th in school breakfast participation, with 54 percent of those eligible not receiving it.

After the Legislature voted in June to increase the state sales tax, most Kansans also now pay the nation’s highest sales tax on food. “That’s not a good distinction,” Gee said. Gaston and Gee said Kansas doesn’t need new government programs to solve hunger problems. “All of these programs we’re going to talk about are programs that already exist,” Gaston said. “We just need to start using them better in Kansas.”

The summer food program’s low rate of usage, for example, is partly a matter of access. Thirty-five of the state’s 105 counties, including all of northwest Kansas, currently have no sites for summer meals. Gaston said that’s improving a bit year-to-year, but large swaths still struggle with the logistics of transporting far-flung students to a central site for lunch in the summer. “We know in Kansas we have a lot of frontier and rural counties, especially in western Kansas,” Gaston said.

“So that’s been a huge challenge.” Some suggestions for improving participation in the summer program were to create county-level task forces, start a site or volunteer to help serve or supervise at a site. Gaston said Westminster Presbyterian’s summer program in Topeka is a model to follow.

Gee said state-level changes to SNAP that restricted eligibility and cut outreach programs will lead to 1,500 Kansans losing food benefits this fiscal year and 3,000 next year, increasing pressure on local food banks.

She encouraged conference attendees to get involved in state politics. Gov. Sam Brownback’s administration has said the changes are intended to encourage work rather than reliance on government assistance.

Gaston said the federal Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010 has become a political lightning rod because of its association with first lady Michelle Obama, but it is largely working in providing healthier lunches for young students. She noted that a group of retired U.S. military generals recently released a report encouraging lawmakers to stick with the program, as a hedge against childhood obesity rates that disqualify a significant percentage of Americans from military service.

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