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Governor’s symbolic action to highlight hunger gets Democrats fired up

Orange light for ‘Hunger Action Month’ doesn’t make up for the state’s handling of summer meals program for low-income children, lawmakers say

Hoping to bring awareness to the need to combat hunger, Missouri Gov. Mike Parson officially declared September “Hunger Action Month” — lighting the state Capitol and governor’s mansion in orange to encourage involvement in efforts to end hunger in local communities.

“When people think of hunger and food insecurity, they may often think of people in other cities, other states, or other nations,” Parson said in his announcement, “but the reality is these issues exist right here in our local communities.”

The lighting coincided with a food drive Monday on the mansion lawn.

Democratic lawmakers weren’t so sanguine about the governor’s pronouncement. 

They pointed to the fact that Missouri is the only state that chose not to participate in a federal program allowing parents and children in low-income areas to pick up free meals and take them home — a pandemic-era benefit that was hailed by supporters as greatly expanding access for children facing food insecurity.

Instead, children were required to eat the meals on site at set times. 

According to NBC News, which first reported on the state’s decision last month, the result was a dramatic drop in the number of meals distributed to low-income children. 

“Changing lightbulbs does nothing to solve hunger,” said state Sen. Lauren Arthur, D-Kansas City. “Feeding children does, and when given the opportunity to help Missouri kids, this administration chose cruelty for the purpose of making a foolish political statement.”

House Minority Leader Crystal Quade, D-Springfield, called the state’s decision “shameful.” 

“Light shows are great,” she said, “but taking care of our kids is more important.”

Parson, who did not respond to a request for comment Tuesday morning, previously defended his administration’s decision in a series of tweets arguing that children should be required to eat free meals on site in order to ensure they are the only ones getting access to the food. 

“By requiring kids to eat meals on-site,” the governor tweeted, “we can be confident that the kids who need the meals are getting the meals.”

Prior to the pandemic, the Summer Food Service Program allowed for meal sites in areas where 50% or more of children qualified for free or reduced lunch. It also required meals be eaten at the meal sites. 

A waiver was issued in March 2020 by the USDA permitting food to be taken home, allowing families to pick up multiple days’ worth of food at one time. The waiver was set to expire in June before Congress passed legislation giving states the option of extending it.

According to NBC News, Missouri was the only state not to take advantage of the waiver. 

Parson argued that because the state moved away from emergency COVID response and to an endemic recovery phase, “Missouri decided not to opt in to the grab-and-go option because our state was returning to normal operations.”

This article by Jason Hancock is published by permission of The Missouri Independent.

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