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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Half a million Washington kids will get summer food aid through new federal program, while Idaho could get help next year

With her mom, Nicole, by her side, Penelope Rogers, 6, receives a free hot dog lunch from Debbi Irvine with Spokane Public Schools nutrition services.  (COLIN MULVANY/THE SPOKESMAN-REVIEW)

WASHINGTON – Nearly 21 million kids from low-income families across the United States, including more than 500,000 in Washington state alone, will get help buying food this summer through a federal program starting this year, while some Republican governors have turned down the money.

Thirty-five states, four tribes and all five U.S. territories have opted into the Summer EBT program that will provide families who qualify for free or discounted school meals with electronic benefits transfer cards worth $120 per child to buy groceries during the summer. The program, essentially a scaled-down version of pandemic-era benefits that expired in 2023, is federally funded but requires states to pay half of the administrative costs.

Sen. Patty Murray advocated for permanent summer food aid for a decade, first introducing her “Stop Child Summer Hunger Act” in 2014 before it became a reality in a government funding bill Congress passed at the end of 2022. In a speech on the Senate floor Thursday, the Washington Democrat said the measure “has been a long time coming.”

“Child hunger isn’t just something I’ve heard about from parents across my home state of Washington,” Murray said, adding that the issue is personal for her because of her childhood, when multiple sclerosis made her father unable to work. “Even if it seems like common sense and basic humanity that kids shouldn’t go hungry, it’s been a long journey to finally get this idea passed into law.”

Idaho is not among the states that opted in by the Jan. 1 deadline, but unlike some of his fellow Republicans in other states, Gov. Brad Little has supported the program, asking the state legislature for roughly $1 million in state funds required to administer it.

If Idaho lawmakers approve that spending, it would unlock about $16.3 million in federal aid for an estimated 136,000 kids in the Gem State, according to Little’s office. But because the state funding wouldn’t begin until Idaho’s fiscal year starts July 1, the help wouldn’t arrive until the summer of 2025.

“Governor Little has included the program costs in his executive budget recommendation to ensure the needs of Idaho families, particularly our children, are met,” Madison Hardy, Little’s press secretary, said in an email.

Denise Dixon, executive director of the Idaho Hunger Relief Task Force, said the nonprofit she leads is calling on state lawmakers to approve the relatively small amount of state funding needed to administer the program. Little has requested a total of $968,700 split between Idaho’s Department of Health and Welfare and Department of Education.

“We are hopeful that Idaho will do the right thing for struggling families,” Dixon said. “Kids don’t deserve to go hungry.”

Elsewhere across the country, some Republican governors have rejected the program outright.

“I don’t believe in welfare,” Gov. Jim Pillen of Nebraska told the Lincoln Journal-Star in December, explaining his decision, while Gov. Kim Reynolds of Iowa said, “An EBT card does nothing to promote nutrition at a time when childhood obesity has become an epidemic.”

The U.S. Department of Agriculture, which runs the Summer EBT program, estimates that the states, tribes and territories that have opted into the program will allow the benefits to reach about 70% of eligible children. The Cherokee, Chickasaw and Osage nations, and the Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians, will participate even though the states where their reservations are located have opted out, and enrolled members of other tribes qualify for the benefits as long as they live in a participating state.