John Whitmer, a former state representative from Wichita, began a recent Facebook post: “I don’t mean to be cold-hearted, but. . .”
What followed was a scathing criticism of a program that feeds hungry children. It’s a common and perennial accusation voiced by many, and it’s absurd.
Whitmer argued that the Summer Food Service Program, a federal initiative paid for by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, should require families to prove citizenship and financial need before their children can receive a free meal.
Currently the program, which begins next week at 42 sites around Wichita, is open to all children 18 and younger — no questions, no reservations, no qualifying guidelines or paperwork.
And that’s the way it needs to stay.
The program was created to ensure that children in low-income areas can continue to receive nutritious meals during long school vacations, when they don’t have access to school lunch or breakfast. It’s financed through federal tax dollars, not district funds.
Last summer, nearly 700 sites across Kansas, including schools, churches, libraries and recreation centers, served about 1.4 million meals through the program. And while that’s impressive, it represents just a fraction of the need.
Kansas provided summer meals to fewer than 10 percent of children who qualify for free or discounted school lunches. Twenty-one Kansas counties had no summer food program sites, meaning many families in rural areas struggle to keep their children fed.
Whitmer presumes that families scam the system and waste taxpayer money by grabbing free meals that they could easily pay for themselves. But that’s simply not the case.
“I would encourage him to visit a site to see the impact it has on the families and youth that are participating,” said Christina Ostmeyer, spokeswoman for Kansas Appleseed, an anti-poverty nonprofit group.
“Volunteers at these sites work hard to make sure that kids with more needs aren’t going hungry or falling behind through no fault of their own.”
To qualify as a sponsor and receive reimbursement for summer meals, any school, church or nonprofit group has to locate their site in a low-income area where a significant portion of households qualify for free school meals. In 2017, the Wichita site that served the most summer meals was the Boys and Girls Club near 21st and Grove.
Whitmer said Thursday that he doesn’t oppose the summer lunch program in concept. But free meals should go only to truly needy children, he said, “and means testing would accomplish that.”
But requiring families to prove financial need by submitting tax forms or other documents is an unnecessary hurdle — one that would contribute to the stigma poor families feel and would dissuade many from participating.
Should children in our state go hungry because their parents are unable or unwilling to fill out required paperwork? Advocates of the summer food program say no, and we agree.
Sedgwick County Commissioner Michael O’Donnell, a Republican and frequent supporter of Whitmer’s anti-tax, anti-big-government stances, responded to his colleague’s Facebook post by sharing a poignant personal story.
Growing up in south Wichita, O’Donnell said, he and his siblings frequented Aley-Stanley Park for what they assumed was a fun family picnic. Their mother’s main objective, though, was the free lunch.
“Did that make my parents proud? No. Was it unfortunately necessary? Yes,” O’Donnell wrote.
Whitmer and other self-proclaimed Christian conservatives with a similar view on this issue would do well to visit a summer meal site, talk to grateful participants, and remember Matthew 25:35:
“For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in.”