JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. – The Summer Food Service Program provides grab-and-go meals for students in need during the summer break in 49 of 50 states. Missouri was the only state to opt out of the program, according to exclusive analysis released Tuesday by NBC News.

Missouri declined to participate in the federal program, which allows parents and children to pick up meals and take them home over the summer months. The pandemic-era benefit vastly expanded access to meals throughout the summer, intended to help students who qualify for free or reduced-price lunches.

The exclusive analysis revealed a dramatic drop in services offered by summer food providers in rural Missouri, including Neosho and Osage Prairie. Some of their sites went from serving thousands of meals per week to roughly a few hundred per week without help from the federal grab-and-go program.

Gov. Mike Parson, in a series of tweets on Wednesday, defended the decision for Missouri to not participate in the summer program.

“The narrative that we aren’t willing to feed kids who need help is just plain false. In Missouri’s Summer Food Service Program, the same amount of meals are still accessible and available to kids in need as before.

In April 2022, we moved away from emergency COVID response and to an endemic recovery phase. 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.”

The decision has prompted criticism via social media, including a message from Trudy Busch Valentine, the Democratic candidate for Missouri U.S. Senate. She shared the exclusive analysis and noted via Twitter, “I don’t know about you, but I am tired of headlines about Missouri failing its children.”

The No Kid Hungry campaign estimated that six out of seven kids who may have needed summer meals in the United States were not getting them prior to the COVID-19 pandemic.