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Children face hunger across Deep South after states refuse summer food aid

The day school gets out for summer sparkles in the American imagination as a vision of children spilling out of classrooms into joyful weeks of freedom and warmth. 

But in reality, the summer months bring something else for millions of children across the country: hunger.

For people like Shaneka Haynes, a single mother in Atlanta with five children aged 3 to 15, there is also worry. Even fear.

When school is in session, her children get hot breakfasts and lunches at school. She relies on those meals to ensure that her kids Dz’t go hungry, so they can focus on their schoolwork while she works long hours braiding hair in a beauty salon. The $300 in food stamps she gets each month Dz’t stretch far.

“During the summer it’s really not enough,” said Haynes, 34.

The nearest grocery store is a 30-minute walk from the small house Haynes rents with the help of federal housing assistance. She has no car and no family members nearby who can help her put food on the table. Some nights, there is no food.

“I try to go to church food giveaways and such, but it’s hard to get over there,” Haynes said. “It’s harder in the summer than it is in the school year.” 

The lack of food over the summer is a tragedy for millions of American families, and the federal government is seeking to address this problem with a new food assistance program approved by Congress with bipartisan support.

The idea is simple: Give families with low incomes a modest sum they can use to buy food during the summer, when free school breakfasts and lunches for students in need are not available.

But 15 states have opted out of the program set to begin this year. That shuts more than half of them in the Deep South states of Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana and Mississippi.

The Southern Poverty Law Center is calling on governors of all the states, but especially those in the Deep South where the social justice organization focuses its efforts, to reverse their decisions.

It is already too late for this summer, but if states opt to enroll in 2025, families with low incomes will be able to receive about $40 a month next summer for each eligible child, limited to use for food and groceries over the three summer months when kids are not in school.

“We have stood here in shock and sadness that these states would deny resources to families that are available to every other family in our country,” said Bacardi Jackson, deputy legal director of the ’s Democracy: Education and Youth litigation team.

Across the five states of the Deep South, one in five students in public schools lives in a family whose income falls below the poverty line. are eligible for government-provided free or reduced-price meals at school – and thus would be able to receive the summer funds. One in three is Black.

Hunger is a growing problem across the country.

Nationwide, food insecurity rose to 12.8% of households, or 17 million, in 2022 – up from 10.2%, or 13.5 million, in 2021, .

“When you look at those numbers and understand who is most impacted, it’s hard to imagine that the majority leaders in those states have considered or care about all the people in their states, including hard-working people trapped in poverty, including people marginalized and excluded from even robust economies – who are disproportionately Black and Brown,” Jackson said. “What could possibly be the motivation for wanting to deny food assistance to children?”

Proven record of success

The food assistance in question comes in the form of the . It was launched in pilot versions in 2011, expanded nationally during the COVID-19 pandemic and was made permanent by Congress in a spending bill adopted in December 2022. Called EBT because the money for families is electronically loaded onto cards that look like debit cards, the program has a proven record of success. In total, $2.5 billion has been allocated for the program this year to feed the estimated 21 million children nationwide whose families qualify for free or reduced-price meals at school. That much or more is to be included in future federal budgets.

This isn’t the first time the federal government has recognized the dearth of food assistance to children in the summer months. Since 1975, the has served meals to children at sites set up in areas where poverty is concentrated. But millions of children live too far away from those sites. Throughout the U.S. and especially in the Deep South, poverty is often rural and isolated, and so are the children who are hungry. Millions more can’t get to food service program sites because their parents are at work. 

In contrast, the EBT program does not require families to get their children to a specific site to receive food. By putting funds directly into parents’ hands and reducing limitations on accessing the assistance, the new program is expected to benefit millions of children.

Not, though, in the states that have refused the aid.

The reasons the political leaders of these states give for rejecting the federal funds vary. Some governors object to federal assistance programs for people living in poverty. Some cite budget concerns; the program requires states to pay half the program’s administrative costs. Others say the Jan. 1 opt-in deadline came too fast for state agencies to handle the administrative challenge.

Some call the program no-longer-needed pandemic-era relief, though the pilot versions of the program predate COVID-19 by nine years. All the states that rejected the program are led by Republican governors, though one, Louisiana, opted out in the waning days of Democrat John Bel Edwards’ administration. Bel Edwards’ successor, Republican Jeff Landry, made clear when he took office in January that he has no intention of reversing that decision.

The people who suffer from food insecurity are more than just numbers. They are among the millions of hard-working families across the Deep South whose children will struggle with food insecurity this summer even though billions of federal dollars are available to help them.

These are some of their stories:

Florida | Georgia | Louisiana | Mississippi

Alabama

“Mostly it’s in summer when my kids are hungry,” said M.B., who spoke on the condition of anonymity.

“During summer, they Dz’t get breakfast and lunch at school, and they are always hungry, especially my two teenagers,” said the 43-year-old who lives in a three-bedroom, rent-subsidized apartment in Birmingham with her four children, ages 5 to 17.

“I think, ‘Maybe I should let them eat again,’ but then I run out of food before I get food stamps and have to dip into my own pocket, which really messes up my budget. A lot of times, I won’t eat so I can feed the kids. I’ll keep it secret because if they knew, they would split whatever they have with me and feel bad. I tell them that I ate while I was cooking – a little white lie.”

In 2020, M.B. left her children’s father, whom she described as physically and emotionally abusive. They had been together 20 years, and he had always been the family provider, she said. She has a restraining order against him, and he doesn’t help her financially. M.B. said she earned a business degree a year after she left. But at about that time, her youngest was diagnosed with autism. Caring for him at home has been a full-time job.

Because her son with autism refuses to eat any food whose texture he dislikes, feeding him is more expensive than it is for her other children, M.B. said.

“If he doesn’t get special foods – if it’s something he doesn’t like – he won’t eat,” she said. “He will go days without eating and just drink juice, but he needs nutrients, so I have to cook special meals for him that cost more.”

Ironically, because M.B.’s son receives $943 in monthly Social Security disability benefits since his diagnosis, her Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefit decreased by $300 two months ago.

Approximately in Alabama are food insecure, and about 545,000 would be eligible for benefits under the Summer EBT program, according to the USDA. Yet in , Alabama passed up for these children.

In Jefferson County, where M.B. lives, some . Birmingham, in Jefferson County, is among in the country, according to the USDA. It is where housing discrimination known as created low-income, predominantly Black neighborhoods that, to this day, lack adequate access to healthy food.

“People are scared to ask for help,” said M.B., explaining why she and many others she knows Dz’t publicly disclose their plight. When she runs out of money to buy food, M.B. seeks help from , a community-based nonprofit in Birmingham that helps Black parents in need pay their bills.

“They never turn down single mothers,” M.B. said. “Even if they Dz’t have food, they’ll try to get it.”

Still, the money from the Summer EBT program would have given her three extra months of reliable food aid annually for her children.

“Once I pay the rent, lights and gas, I’m left with about $100. Sometimes I need necessities like feminine hygiene products and have to put food before that. That’s why I’m so disappointed that we didn’t get the summer food program.”

Rhonda Sonnenberg

Alabama | Florida | Georgia | Mississippi

Louisiana

Raynata moved to Lafayette, Louisiana, in 2005 after Hurricane Katrina forced her to evacuate her home in New Orleans. A U.S. Army veteran, she draws monthly disability payments as her main income. She also works part-time as a substitute teacher.

For three years during the COVID-19 pandemic and recovery, Raynata, who spoke on condition of anonymity, received EBT program benefits to help make ends meet while her sons, ages 10 and 15, were out of school. This year, however, Louisiana has opted out of the program, rejecting what state Sen. Cleo Fields estimated as that would have helped keep about children fed during the summer.

“When I did get the summer EBT payments during the summertime, it was a huge help,” Raynata said. “A lot of times they Dz’t realize the kids are home during the summer. The parents get a little relief during the school time because the schools are providing breakfast and lunch, so you really just have dinner to prepare.”

Because her disability payments are capped at $23,000 per year, Raynata said she cannot earn more than that without losing some of those benefits. That makes the challenge of providing for her children even tougher.

“I would normally start preparing, if I get a little extra money on the side, to put it on up to hold me over in the summer months,” Raynata said. “I can’t sub in the summer, so that’s income lost. That’s pretty much it, just trying to take a little money here and there and put it away to hold me over.”

That lack of earning power coincides with the time that her expenses rise while her children are out of school.

“In the summer, they’re home all day, even if they’re sent to a camp,” she said. “They Dz’t stay at camp all day, and they’re coming home with an appetite. Most camps aren’t providing breakfast, so when you want to send your kids to camp, even if they provide lunch, you also have to realize they’re going to need at least a breakfast to start the day. So now you have to have breakfast and you have to have meals for dinner when they get home. It can be a lot.”

To make matters worse, summer months in southwest Louisiana are notoriously hot, pushing utility costs through the roof as air conditioners struggle to keep homes cool.

“Your utilities are going to go up for those months,” Raynata said. “So, when I was receiving the EBT funds, it helped a lot because that was allowing me to have that extra money that would have been spent on food to apply to my utility bills whenever they went up during the summer months.”

Without the summer EBT aid going to Louisiana families, aid organizations are facing the daunting task of picking up the slack.

“We sent many, many letters asking the governor, the Department of Education and others to please accept this money,” said Natalie Jayroe, president and CEO of the nonprofit , the largest charitable anti-hunger network in South Louisiana. “We sent many letters trying to express why we felt it was so important for the kids of Louisiana.”

Dwayne Fatherree

Alabama | Florida | Georgia | Louisiana

Mississippi

In Mississippi, pervasive poverty and a lack of economic opportunity throughout the state’s mostly rural communities and urban centers underscore the importance of the Summer EBT program. More than 19% of people and 27% of children in the state live in poverty, the highest percentages in the nation, according to published by the USDA. Mississippi also has among the highest share of single parents in the country, with about 50% of children living in such households. Without the benefit of a second income, single parents must work particularly hard to provide food and other necessities for their children.

Sharnesia Larry is one of these parents. A single mother of three boys, ages 1, 8 and 10, she works full-time to support the needs of her sons. Last spring, a tornado ripped through the rural town of Rolling Fork, where the family lives, uprooting trees and knocking down power lines while destroying dozens of homes and businesses.

“We lost everything last March and we didn’t have much help from our state,” said Larry. “And trust me, we could’ve really used that help.”

Since then, Larry began receiving SNAP benefits to help cover the cost of groceries. She earns about $2,000 a month and does not receive child support. Even with the SNAP benefits, grocery bills quickly add up, Larry said.

The Summer EBT program would be an immense help, she said.

“My 1-year-old is teething now, so he’s eating more,” Larry said. “Baby food is very expensive at almost $3 per meal. Even when my two older children are in school, I have to cook a lot to provide for them. You can only imagine what it’s like when they’re out for the summer.”

Like many Americans who have seen the cost of groceries rise significantly in recent years, Larry has seen her wages stay the same.

“Take a regular person’s paycheck. By the time you take out rent, utilities, bills, you barely have anything left. Food costs are increasing but pay isn’t.”

To save on food and child care costs, Larry enlists the help of her parents, who live nearby and offer as much support as they’re able. Without their help, she said, her family would be struggling. She wonders how mothers who have no one to lean on but themselves will make it through the summer without the EBT benefits.

“These officials are making good money,” Larry said. “It seems that they haven’t had a dose of what regular people have to go through. In Rolling Fork, there’s a lot of poverty because there aren’t any jobs. People have to drive far out of town, spending a lot of money on gas, just to get to work. These leaders are here in Mississippi, but they’re not experiencing the struggle of Mississippi. That’s how they can make a cruel decision like this.”

Safiya Charles

Alabama | Georgia | Louisiana | Mississippi

Florida

While people who qualify for the EBT program won’t get help this summer in Florida, some who Dz’t qualify for the program need assistance as well.

That is the case for T.J., the single mother of a 5-year-old son in Broward County. Deferring rent, utilities or her car loan payment to buy food is a regular juggling exercise for her.

“At least once a week he says he wants more food,” said T.J., who spoke on the condition of anonymity. “I’m anxiously stressed, because it’s not a need I can ignore. If he asks for something in the supermarket that I can’t afford, I’m straight up with him. I tell him, ‘You have to wait on it. We can get it later, but we can’t now.’”

T.J., 25, and her son are more fortunate than many families with inadequate access to food. She earns about $15 an hour at a full-time, overnight warehouse job. She attends college part-time and picks up seasonal money doing tax prep work. That makes her ineligible to receive SNAP benefits or to qualify for the EBT program.

But making ends meet is not easy for T.J. Her son’s father used to help when he could, but a serious car accident has left him in a medically induced coma, she said, and he may never work again.

T.J. rents a $600-per-month efficiency apartment in Fort Lauderdale, where the median monthly rent for a one-bedroom apartment is . She recently began receiving a $400 monthly subsidy for her son’s year-round private pre-K school. Until then, she shouldered the $700 monthly cost with the help of her best friend, Natalia Vargas.

“You practically have to be living under a bridge in Florida to qualify for free pre-K or housing assistance,” Vargas said. 

A spokesman for Gov. Ron DeSantis told the Orlando Sentinel that the state already has to feed needy children. But his decision to opt out of the Summer EBT program – and its $248 million in federal funds – leaves nearly 2.2 million children in the state without the extra food benefits this summer.

In Broward County, where T.J. lives, of children under 18 were food insecure in 2021, according to the Florida Department of Health. Rural counties along the Georgia border commonly have rates well over 20%. In , home to the capital city of Tallahassee, one in three children is food insecure.

Vargas, who is also a working student, is the boy’s godmother and unofficial guardian. She moved from Broward County to Tallahassee for college but sends T.J. money and visits as often as she can to pick up her godson from school or take him to medical appointments when T.J. can’t.

“She barely sleeps,” Vargas said of her friend.

The two say they have been like sisters since they were young girls, bonded, in part, by their shared Caribbean heritage: T.J. is from Puerto Rico; Vargas from Jamaica.

“She is proud and doesn’t ever admit she can’t afford to feed him enough,” Vargas said. “Caribbean people like us are like that. She will go to her sister’s or aunt’s house to eat when she doesn’t have enough to feed him, though she never tells them that’s why she’s come.”

T.J. laments the state’s miserly attitude toward food insecurity for people like her – working people who make too much to qualify for assistance but still need help to ensure their children can eat.

“DeSantis knows that everything is costing more, but food is a basic necessity we can’t do without,” T.J. said. “You shouldn’t have to be dirt poor to get help.”

– Rhonda Sonnenberg

Alabama | Florida | Louisiana | Mississippi

Georgia

The receptionist at the office of the Elbert County school board arrives at work promptly and is always carefully put together. Her hair is neat, her attire professional, the smile on her face welcoming and soft. That is a key facet of the job of a receptionist. Never make people uncomfortable.

And that’s why Wildig Hall, 47, does not mention her worries to anyone at work. Will she and her husband, a grower at a local greenhouse, have enough to pay the mortgage this month? Have her kids, 10, 16 and 18, already eaten all the milk, bread and eggs that she bought to last all week? Is there anything in the kitchen besides that pot of beans and rice that Hall, who learned to cook from her Puerto Rican mother, keeps on the stove?

In Elberton, the town in northeast Georgia of about 4,500 that Hall and her family call home, the family has made a good life. Together, they make about $55,000 a year. They own a home and a car. They have three kids who love to play sports. And they have each other.

But still, money is tight. The Hall family income falls well below Georgia’s $65,000-per-year cap on eligibility for the federal free and reduced-price meals program. All of their children get breakfast and lunches at school, but their boys play sports, and the portions are not all that large. They come home ravenous, and they grab whatever their parents had time to stock in the freezer – usually Hot Pockets, pizza rolls or chicken nuggets. 

The mortgage is going up in March by $140 a month. The car, bought well used, is a money sink, but where they live they can’t get anywhere without it. The teenagers ask to go out to the movies with friends, but that’s a 40-minute drive and that means gas, then movie tickets and popcorn. Usually, Hall tells her kids, it would be better to stay home.

The Halls are not untypical. One in every 10 children in Georgia is living in a family that cannot afford necessities such as housing and food, according to the latest data from the . The reports that 13.3% of the children in Georgia – 1 in 8 – are food insecure. And, according to the USDA, 1.1 million children in Georgia are eligible for the federal free and reduced-price school meal program.

That would make those same children eligible for the Summer EBT Food program, if Georgia had not passed up the opportunity to implement it this year.

Where Hall and her family live, there are no other options. There are no summer meal sites in Elberton. In fact, there are none within 50 miles.

“The summers are tight,” Hall said. “We kind of tell them, ‘Don’t snack throughout the day. Make a meal. Make some breakfast, make a sandwich for lunch with whatever we have. That way it will hold you a little longer.

“Even though we are a two-parent household, it’s still hard. It’s very frustrating how hard it is to make our budget work. Sometimes I’m like, what’s the point? You know, it’s frustrating. With prices going up and our mortgage going up, things aren’t getting easier. That little bit toward food, that $40 a month per child? That, speaking as a parent, well, that would be fantastic.”

Photo at top: Students wrap up their lunch break at Lowell Elementary School in Albuquerque, New Mexico, on Aug. 22, 2023. (Credit: Associated Press/Susan Montoya Bryan)