Republican Gov. Mike Parson’s efforts to combat hunger in Missouri were greeted with cynicism this week by state Democrats, who argued more was needed following an NBC News report on the state’s handling of its free summer meals program for children in need.
Both the Governor’s Mansion and the Capitol dome were lit orange Monday at sunset into sunrise Tuesday for September’s Hunger Action Month, which Parson proclaimed to bring awareness to the need to fight hunger.
Along with the orange lighting, Missouri first lady Teresa Parson held a food drive on the lawn of the Governor’s Mansion on Monday.
The move came a month after NBC News revealed Missouri did not allow summer meal program operators to offer to-go meals — leading to a dramatic drop in access to meals for kids facing food insecurity.
During the pandemic, a federal waiver permitted program operators across the country to offer grab-and-go meals as opposed to requiring kids to eat on-site at set times. The benefit vastly expanded access to the Summer Food Service Program by giving families the flexibility to take meals home rather than go to a meal site at a specific time each day.
An exclusive NBC News analysis based on responses from all 50 states showed Missouri was the only state not to opt in to the waiver for summer 2022. Those who ran the summer meals program across the state said Missouri’s decision resulted in up to 97% fewer meals distributed compared to last summer.
The governor proclaimed September would be Hunger Action Month on Aug. 10, nearly two weeks before NBC News’ story on summer meals was published.
Calling hunger and poverty “issues of grave concern” in Missouri, the proclamation stated that there would be numerous events by Missouri food banks throughout September to encourage efforts to end hunger in local communities and to bring attention to the issue.
The two buildings glowing orange for hunger awareness, shared in a tweet by Parson, prompted immediate criticism from local Democrats.
Their reaction was first reported by the Missouri Independent, which describes itself as a nonpartisan, nonprofit news organization that covers state government, politics and policy.
“Changing lightbulbs does nothing to solve hunger,” state Sen. Lauren Arthur, a Democrat from Kansas City, told the Missouri Independent. “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.”
Missouri House Minority Leader Crystal Quade, a Democrat from Springfield, tweeted, “Lights don’t feed kids.”
Others in Missouri also slammed the governor.
“Missouri was the only state in nation that canceled free grab-and-go food program for poor kids this summer. Pretty lights, though,” Tony Messenger, a metro columnist for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, tweeted.
Missouri was the only state in nation that canceled free grab-and-go food program for poor kids this summer. Pretty lights, though.
— Tony Messenger, metro columnist for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch
The governor’s office did not address the criticism it was receiving but maintained Wednesday that the decision not to provide grab-and-go summer meals was the right move.
Last month, Kelli Jones, Parson’s communications director, told NBC News that such meals were originally “designed to respond to the COVID-19 pandemic and help prevent exposure in group settings.”
She argued that the pre-pandemic format of eating meals on-site ensured program integrity.
“The program continues to work as it was designed — for children to eat meals on site. These normal operations ensure accountability and integrity of the program,” she said. “By requiring kids to eat meals on site, we can be confident that the kids who need the meals are getting the meals.”
In tweets following the publication of last month’s article, the governor said “the narrative that we aren’t willing to feed kids who need help is just plain false.”
He added that in April, Missouri had transitioned away from an emergency pandemic response to an endemic recovery phase and said that “Missouri decided not to opt in to the grab-and-go option because our state was returning to normal operations.”
“The Summer Food Service Program continues to work as it was designed — for children to eat meals on site. By requiring kids to eat meals on-site, we can be confident that the kids who need the meals are getting the meals,” he tweeted on Aug. 24.