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

The story was originally published in NBC News with support from the USC Annenberg Center for Health Journalism's 2022 National Fellowship.

A spokeswoman for Gov. Mike Parson defended Missouri’s handling of its free summer meals program Wednesday, a day after NBC News revealed the state was the only one not to allow to-go meals this summer — leading to a dramatic drop in food distributed to kids.

An exclusive NBC News analysis based on responses from all 50 states showed Missouri was the only one not to opt in to a federal waiver that permitted program operators to offer grab-and-go meals. The pandemic-era benefit vastly expanded access to the Summer Food Service Program by giving families the flexibility to take meals home rather than requiring kids to eat on site at set times. 

Those who ran the program across the state said Missouri’s decision not to take advantage of the relaxed rules resulted in up to 97% fewer meals distributed compared to last summer.

Erin McAlvany's family eat a summer meal site in Kirksville, Mo., on Aug. 16.Arin Yoon for NBC News

Erin McAlvany's family eat a summer meal site in Kirksville, Mo., on Aug. 16.Arin Yoon for NBC News

News that Missouri was the lone state to require that all summer meals be eaten at meal sites prompted furor on social media, much of it directed at Parson, the state’s Republican governor. 

“Missouri government declines to feed children,” tweeted Randi McCallian, a Missouri Democrat running for the U.S. House.

Kelli Jones, Parson’s communications director, emphatically denied that.

“The narrative that we aren’t feeding kids who need help is just plain false,” she said in a statement. “The same amount of meals are still accessible and available to kids in need as before.”

She echoed what a bureau chief in the state Department of Health and Senior Services, the agency that declined the federal waiver, had told NBC News, pointing out that grab-and-go 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 status as of April, “Missouri decided not to opt in to the grab-and-go program because our state was returning to normal operations,” Jones said.

But that was not a requirement for the waivers, which were in place for the past two years and were set to expire in June. Meal site operators across the country began their summer requiring that meals be eaten on site and then got a reprieve with the passage of last-minute legislation that gave states the option to extend summer meal waivers.

The extended waivers expanded the circumstances permitted for grab-and-go meals, which for the past two summers had been allowed only because of health concerns, according to the U.S. Agriculture Department. 

Not all program operators had the ability to pivot to grab-and-go meals, but in every state other than Missouri, they had the option to apply to do so. 

Jones said 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 an email to NBC News Thursday afternoon, a spokesperson for the Missouri Department of Health and Senior Services elaborated on the state's concerns regarding grab-and-go meals, claiming millions of dollars had been improperly used as a result of them.

"Sponsors were required to be accountable for ensuring the end consumer of the meals and snacks was actually a program-eligible child or participant. The waivers did not ensure food was getting to those who needed it most," the email said. The health department has found more than $5 million in mismanagement "related directly to these waivers," it added.

"Unfortunately, the waivers have provided some sponsors with the perfect forum to compromise program integrity and mismanage the programs," the email continued, saying that the health department was "actively working toward contract termination and placement on the National Disqualified List for several sponsors." 

Program operators in Missouri had previously told NBC News that they did not worry that grab-and-go meals were not going to kids who needed them.

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

“I don’t know about you, but I am tired of headlines about Missouri failing its children,” tweeted Trudy Busch Valentine, a U.S. Senate candidate.

“We have to do better for our kids…our future,” tweeted Stephanie Hein, a candidate for state representative.