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Missouri governor responds to criticism of state’s handling of summer meal program

A spokeswoman for Gov. Mike Parson defended Missouri’s handling of its free summer meals program on Wednesday, a day after NBC News revealed the state was alone in not allowing take-out meals this summer, which led to a dramatic drop in food distributed to children. .

An exclusive NBC News analysis based on responses from all 50 states showed Missouri was the only one not opting into a federal waiver that allowed program operators to offer take-out meals. The pandemic-era benefit has dramatically expanded access to the summer food service program by giving families the option to take meals home rather than requiring children to eat on-site at fixed hours.

Those who ran the program across the state said Missouri’s decision not to take advantage of the relaxed rules meant up to 97% fewer meals were being handed out compared to last summer.

Erin McAlvany’s family eats at a food court in Kirksville, Missouri on August 16.Arin Yoon for NBC News

The news that Missouri was the only state to require all summer meals to be eaten at dine-in sites sparked furor on social media, much of it directed at Parsons, the state’s Republican governor.

“Missouri government refuses to feed children” tweeted Randi McCalliana Missouri Democrat running for the United States House of Representatives.

Kelli Jones, Parson’s director of communications, flatly denied this.

“The narrative that we don’t feed children who need help is simply untrue,” she said in a statement. “The same quantity of meals is still accessible and available for children in need as before.”

She echoed what a bureau chief for the state Department of Health and Senior Services, the agency that denied the federal waiver, told NBC News, pointing out that take-out meals were originally “designed to respond to the COVID-19 pandemic”. and help prevent exposure in group settings.

With the state no longer in an emergency response state in April, “Missouri decided not to join the take-out program because our state was returning to normal operations,” Jones said.

Missouri governor responds to criticism of state's handling of summer meal program

But that was not a requirement for the waivers, which had been in place for two years and were due to expire in June. Operators of dine-in sites across the country started their summer by requiring meals to be eaten on-site, then got a reprieve with the passing of last-minute legislation that gave states the ability to extend waivers of summer meals.

The extended waivers expanded the permitted circumstances for take-out meals, which for the past two summers had only been permitted due to health concerns, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Not all program operators had the option to switch to takeout, but in every state other than Missouri they had the option to apply to do so.

Jones said the pre-pandemic eat-in format ensured the integrity of the program.

“The program continues to operate as it was designed — for the children to have their meals on site. These normal operations ensure program accountability and integrity,” she said. “By requiring children to eat on site, we can ensure that children who need meals receive the meals.”

Missouri program operators previously told NBC News they weren’t worried that take-out meals wouldn’t go to children when they were able to serve them.

Democratic candidates in Missouri seized on Tuesday’s news from their state.

“I don’t know about you, but I’m sick of the headlines about Missouri letting its kids down,” tweeted Trudy Busch Valentinea candidate for the United States Senate.

“We must do better for our children… our future”, tweeted Stephanie Heincandidate for the post of State representative.

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