Two Missouri agencies are responding to an NBC report saying the Show-Me State was the only one in the nation not allowing summer to-go meals this year for low-income children and some adults.

The Missouri Department of Health and Senior Services (DHSS) oversees the Summer Food Service Program, which reimburses non-profit organizations for providing meals. The Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE) is in charge of the Seamless Summer Option Program at school sites.

Missouri summer food program sites

Since the start of the pandemic, the federal government has granted Missouri some wiggle room in its summer food programs. That wiggle room expanded access to let parents and guardians pick up meals for children and gave flexibility on meal service time requirements, allowing for multiple to-go meals per child.

Barbara Shaw, DESE’s coordinator of Food and Nutrition Services, said the USDA had originally planned to let those flexibilities expire on June 30. At the last minute, she said plans changed and the federal government allowed states the option of extending those summer meal flexibilities.

“There was not a lot of time. We were planning to go back to normal,” she said. “And so, a lot of meal services, a lot of summer meal sites operate in July. And if they are planning to go back to normal after June 30, they might go ahead and put normal procedures into practice just to get used to doing those normal procedures. So on July 7, the waivers got extended. And so that was a lot of lag time that these program operators could not prepare for that type of change. There were just some timing issues that I think could have could have been better.”

Shaw said Missouri was granted an extension but very few school sites chose to hand out to-go meals.

“With any type of meal service operation, a lot of planning has to go into that. USDA did not give states a lot of notification, or really any notification, that these waivers were going to be extended past June 30,” said Shaw. “I think a lot of it was just the challenges that we’ve had with staffing, higher costs of food and inflation, just having enough hands to prepare all those meals and distribute all those meals. I think a lot of these program operators were fatigued, too. They’ve been working overtime for the last couple of years to prepare so many more meals.”

Shaw said students were still given access to a meal but they could not take the meal home and eat it.

“But there was just as many meals, just as much food being available to children at those programs sites,” she said.

DHSS Spokesperson Lisa Cox said the most significant eligibility criteria noted in the USDA announcement is that the flexibilities were only allowed when group dining is specifically limited by the COVID-19 pandemic. She said non-profit agencies providing the meals were still allowed to apply for the temporary exemptions.

Cox said the waivers do not have accountability, which led some – not all – sites to hand out crackers for dinner and get reimbursed based on how many “meals” they provided. Another location turned out to be a gentleman’s club in St. Louis – not a “central kitchen” as listed for several summer food sites. Workers went there to check on the location and were not allowed in, according to Cox.

“The waivers did not ensure food was getting to those who needed it most. DHSS has returned to in-person monitoring operations and in that monitoring, DHSS has found sponsors’ mismanagement of the programs related directly to these waivers in amounts of more than $5 million (so far). DHSS is actively working toward contract termination and placement on the National Disqualified List for several sponsors. 1,108 SFSP sites operated in Missouri during summer 2022 in the manner that they have for nearly 50 years (with the exception of 2020-2021). Not all Missouri sponsors have taken advantage of the waivers and operated inappropriately. Thousands of eligible Missourians continued to receive meals this summer from honest organizations,” she said.

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