Home » Lawmakers push Landry administration to join children’s summer food program

Lawmakers push Landry administration to join children’s summer food program

by Minden Press-Herald

JULIE O’DONOGHUE – Louisiana Illuminator

A sign noting the acceptance of electronic benefit transfer (EBT) cards that are used by state welfare departments to issue benefits is displayed at a grocery store on Dec. 4, 2019 in Oakland, California.
Louisiana lawmakers are trying to push Gov. Jeff Landry’s administration to join a federal summer food program for low-income children. (Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

Republican leaders in the Louisiana Legislature started to push last week for Louisiana to join a new federal summer food program for needy children, even after GOP Gov. Jeff Landry’s administration and K-12 schools chief Cade Brumley declined to participate months ago.

Senate President Cameron Henry, R-Metairie, and state Rep. Jack McFarland, R-Jonesboro, said they will meet with state officials this week to insist the food assistance comes to Louisiana this summer, when children are home from school.

Henry said he expects state agencies to make progress toward launching the program in the next two weeks, before the Louisiana Senate Finance Committee convenes to review the state budget proposal.

“We will do whatever we’ve got to do” to get the children’s food program in place for the summer, McFarland told the Louisiana House of Representatives during a budget debate Thursday.

Last week marks the first time Republican state officials have taken a firm, public stance in favor of Louisiana joining the federal Summer Electronic Benefit Transfer Program for Children, or Summer EBT. The GOP-controlled Louisiana House voted unanimously for a budget plan Thursday that included $3.6 million to take part in the initiative.

In exchange for those few million dollars of state money, Louisiana could receive as much as $71 million in federal assistance to help feed 594,000 children through Summer EBT, according to U.S. Department of Agriculture estimates.

The federal government would provide an extra $40 per month per qualifying child in electronic food-buying benefits to low-income households while children are on summer break. President Joe Biden’s administration created the program to help families deal with higher grocery store costs when their children don’t have access to free and reduced-price meals at school.

The money would not only benefit low-income families but also Louisiana grocery stores because people would have more money to spend on food.

“It feeds kids and it brings money to local businesses,” said Henry, when asked why Louisiana should join the initiative.

Program delays
For months, the Landry administration and state education department, which is under the control of a partially-elected state school board, have resisted calls to participate in Summer EBT.

Louisiana is one of 14 states that chose not to join the program. Texas and Mississippi are not participating in Summer EBT, though Louisiana’s other neighboring state, Arkansas, is part of the initiative.

Brumley, who has served as Louisiana’s education superintendent for the past four years, decided not to sign the state up for Summer EBT last year before the initial Jan. 1 deadline. He said he declined to do so because he thought Landry, who became governor a few days later on Jan. 8, might not want to take part in the program.

In February, Landry’s top appointed child welfare official, David Matlock, confirmed the administration did not want to join, saying the food program for children might stand in the way of Louisiana residents finding a “pathway to self-sufficiency.”

In recent months, Matlock, Brumley and Landry’s staff have also emphasized Louisiana participates in another federal feeding program for low-income children, the Summer Food Service Program. That initiative makes pre-made meals and snacks available throughout the summer break at designated sites, though children advocates say it isn’t meeting everyone’s needs. Not all parishes in the state have a Summer Food Service Program location, and there are very few access points in rural areas.

The federal government also designed Summer EBT to work in conjunction with the Summer Food Service Program, not as an alternative to the existing initiative.

Too late to participate?
At a budget hearing last week, Brumley and Matlock angered lawmakers by saying it was too late to get Summer EBT going for this summer, even if lawmakers commit money to the initiative.

The two state agency heads also pointed fingers at each other for holding up the process.

Matlock told lawmakers the Department of Children and Family Services, which he runs, could disperse Summer EBT benefits by the end of June but was waiting on information it needed from the Department of Education, which Brumley oversees. If the information was stalled, Matlock would have to wait until the end of the calendar year to give out the Summer EBT benefits to qualifying households in a lump sum.

“Our component … can’t be implemented until some of our partners complete their portion,” Matlock said.

Speaking soon after Matlock, Brumley told lawmakers the education department was only a “support agency” on Summer EBT and that the Department of Children and Family Services was responsible for the program.

Brumley said his department could not provide the information Matlock wants because Matlock’s agency and the state technology office haven’t built the online portal needed for the program yet.

Setting up Summer EBT is especially complicated in Louisiana because of a state privacy law that prevents the education department from collecting and sharing personal data, Brumley added.

“My agency does not have access to personal identifiable information for students,” the superintendent told lawmakers Thursday.

At least one advocate said the existing privacy law should not be a barrier to the summer food initiative.

Susan East Nelson, who runs the Louisiana Partnership for Children and Families, said lawmakers passed an exception to the privacy law in 2021 specifically allowing K-12 schools to share student information for a “summer electronic benefits program.”

Nelson also said the federal government doesn’t require Louisiana to have a portal to operate the program until 2025. In 2024, states have been given more flexibility to get Summer EBT up and running as easily as possible.

“This should not be this complicated. We have the tools and capability in our reach,” Nelson said in an interview Friday. “We just need cooperation.”

McFarland and Henry said they will insist on cooperation from Matlock, Brumley and others in state government.

“We have the ability to tell the agencies where they are going to spend that money, how they are going to spend that money and when they are going to spend that money,” McFarland told the Louisiana House last week.

“For an agency to come up here and tell me they can’t work together … hogwash,” he said.

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