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(The punch line: After you read this, you can go to the Iowa Hunger Coalition website to take action. And, with your children, call the governor directly: 515-281-5211.)

You may have heard that Gov. Kim Reynolds is declining more than $28 million in federal funding that could be used to make sure families with kids getting free and reduced-priced lunches at school can buy enough food for themselves during the summer.

Here is the news release produced by the governor’s Department of Health and Human Services (two days before Christmas) announcing the decision.

Though unsuccessful so far, I spoke to the Iowa House of Representatives to rally legislative support for subscribing to the program. In this and my next newsletter, I address the issues (excuses?) used to justify the refusal. (Spoiler alert: a Dubuque County Republican legislator suggested the real reason: she thinks the cost of the program is being put on the national debt.)

In these remarks, I discuss the claim that food assistance programs promote childhood obesity:

An effective Legislature is one that provides leadership to and oversight of the state’s executive branch when the executive branch spurns public resources that can offer important investment opportunities and provide for the critical needs of Iowans. That is especially true at a time when, for years and years now, this body can’t seem to find more than “status quo” funding for many of our own state programs.

Most recent case in point: The decision by the Department of Education and the Department of Health and Human Services to decline $28 million in summer food assistance for school children available through the Summer EBT program offered by United States Department of Agriculture’s Food and Nutrition Service. (EBT stands for “electronic benefits transfer.”)

The assistance would come in the form of $40 a month for each eligible child, using electronic benefit transaction cards for the three months that kids are not in school. Kids eligible for free and reduced-priced lunches during the school year, or who go to a school in low-income neighborhoods, are eligible.

Why do I care? As a former board member of the Dubuque Food Pantry, as a volunteer who delivers food boxes or helps serve Christmas dinners for Dubuque Area Labor Harvest, as a participant in Dubuque Eats Well, which promoted fresh, healthy, locally-produced food; as a supporter of my parish’s St. Vincent DePaul Society, and a proponent of the Dubuque County Food Policy Council, I have worked on food and hunger issues in the community off and on most of my adult life.

U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack has the authority to waive the deadline for Iowa’s participation in the Summer EBT program. He has signaled that he would use that authority for Iowa, if Governor Reynolds requests. We can make that request possible by funding the state’s anticipated administrative costs for the program. We can do that by passing House File 2042, which was introduced and referred to the Health and Human Services Committee.

After we do that, the Government Oversight Committee should convene – or an interim committee should be authorized – to explore matters of food security, child nutrition, the health impacts of food assistance programs, their relationship to poverty and behavioral health, and whether or not what we currently do as a state is sufficient to address these issues.

The reasons offered to decline the federal food assistance can be scrutinized, the committee can offer changes to state laws, regulations, programs and appropriations available to state and local governments, as well as non-profit community organizations, to address critical concerns that are identified.

What we should NOT be doing is making children go hungry, expecting them to come back to school ready to learn, while the adults try to figure out if we are doing the right thing.

We have knowledge and expertise right here in our own state we can call upon. We are paying these folks. Let’s use them. Entities that would be willing to assist include, among others:

1) The Institute of Public Health Research and Policy in the University of Iowa College of Public Health

2) The University of Iowa Carver College of Medicine Obesity Research and Education Initiative

3) The University of Iowa College of Public Health Nutrition Center

4) The Iowa State University Nutrition and Wellness Research Center

5) The Iowa Healthiest State Initiative

6) The Iowa Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics

7) The School Nutrition Association of Iowa

In particular, the Department of Health and Human Services justified rejecting the federal food aid because helping families pay for their own food supposedly fosters childhood obesity. Certainly, Iowa does have an obesity and physical fitness problem, and it’s not limited to children. The percentage of US children affected by obesity has tripled in the past 50 years. Children in Iowa have not been exempt. Based on national data through 2018, 16% of children are overweight, 19% of children are obese and 6 % of children are severely obese.

So I asked some of these experts for their feedback and for a literature review on the role of food assistance programs in helping or hurting.

Doctor Andrew Norris, Professor of Pediatrics, Director of Pediatric Endocrinology & Diabetes, and Co-Director of the Diabetes Research Center at University of Iowa Health Care said: “My general sense is that reducing food security could worsen obesity, due to a switch to cheaper calories, reducing protein intake.” Hmmm. Reduced protein intake due to food insecurity. Maybe something that will raise the eyebrows of Iowa ag producers.

Doctor Vanessa Curtis did the literature review, starting with some research conducted for me by the Council of State Governments.

Dr. Curtis is Clinical Associate Professor of Pediatrics for Endocrinology and Diabetes at the University of Iowa Carver College of Medicine. She is also Director of Child and Community Health at UI Health Care, which includes the state’s Child Health Specialty Clinics.

Dr. Curtis said the evidence for a connection between childhood obesity and food assistance programs is mixed at best. She wrote: “I think it would take a public health expert a career to determine the true interplay between food insecurity and obesity and food assistance programs for the kids in Iowa…. the Association between food assistance and obesity is unclear because there are so many variables.” She cited one study that showed “the relationship of food assistance and obesity in low-income families depended on the level of food security and that food insecure children did NOT have higher rates of obesity.”

But, in the end, Dr. Curtis acknowledged that “We do not have sufficient data to know the effects of food assistance programs on high-risk families…. we need more research to really know if food assistance can help obesity and for whom.” As a pediatrician, she recommends “better studies so we can use good evidence to spend money, considering gender, race and ethnicity, and other cultural factors that affect who participates in food assistance and how they use it.”

The fact that it took Dr. Curtis a few days to look into all of this tells me that the department did not consult with her or others at the College of Public Health before making the decision to forego the Summer EBT program.

The Legislature should now engage in that consultation, after we appropriate the money for the Summer EBT in 2024. Then, in a future year, we can review whether or not to continue participation in the program based on actual evidence. House File 2042 begins that process by appropriating funds to conduct that research.

In the meantime, since we are concerned about the quality of the food kids eat, we can also leverage Summer EBT by funding the Double Up Food Bucks program promoted by the Iowa Healthiest State Initiative. House File 2042 does that, too.

Double Up Food Bucks gives eligible recipients resources to get twice as much for their money when they use the food bucks to buy fresh fruits and vegetables.

Some people ask: Is the state that supposedly feeds the world willing to feed its own children? I ask: Can there be a better time to use $28 million? To create a harmonious convergence between Summer EBT and Double Up Food Bucks? In the height of farmers’ market season? June, July and August? Creating opportunity for family food farmers and economic vitality for rural communities? Sounds like a pretty good way to Choose Iowa. I hope Secretary Naig is listening.

Gov. Reynolds stood next to Gov. Branstad in 2011 when the Iowa Healthiest State Initiative was announced. I hope she still stands behind it today. We can help her.

Iowa: Freedom to Flourish. Let us go where science and common sense tell us: NOURISH to Flourish. We can do this.

Author: Chuck Isenhart


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