Fla. Outreach Pays Off With Summer-Meals Participation
Florida's needy children are a phone call away from free, nutritionally balanced meals this summer, thanks in part to the state's aggressive promotion of a historically underutilized federal initiative.
After launching a public-awareness campaign in 1997, the Sunshine State led the nation last year in participation in the Summer Food Service Program. The federally subsidized effort is designed to keep students who receive free or reduced-priced lunches during the school year from going hungry in the summer.
Florida fed more than 336,000 students last summer, or 40 percent of all of its eligible youngsters, according to a recent report by the Food Research and Action Center, a Washington-based advocacy group.
And, although the total represents a 57 percent increase from 1996, state education officials and a nonprofit partner are expanding their outreach efforts with an eye to reaching even more children this year, state Commissioner of Education Frank T. Brogan said in a recent interview. Their efforts include the return of a state hot line that parents and students can call to find the nearest summer-meals location.
"We want to keep this up," Mr. Brogan said of the nutrition campaign. "We want to make sure that every eligible child has access to the Summer Food Service Program."
While schools, nonprofit organizations, and churches typically provide free lunches--and sometimes breakfasts and snacks--states play an important role in coordinating and promoting summer-meals campaigns.
Nationally, 1997 participation rates in the summer food program made modest gains, as 2.34 million children received meals on an average day, 10.6 percent more than in 1996, and 25 percent more than in 1992, according to FRAC.
The federal government spent $242.5 million on the summer food program in fiscal 1997. But even with increases in the number of children served, the program still feeds only one of every six students nationwide who receive free or reduced-price lunches during the school year, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which administers all federal child nutrition programs.
And, while USDA officials do not expect to serve all of the students who receive free or reduced-price lunches during the school year, "the bottom line is that we could double or triple the number [the program] reaches without meeting the need that's there," said Mike Haga, a confidential assistant with the USDA's food and nutrition service program.
The fact that some states are making progress in spite of obstacles--including the program's near-elimination in 1995 and a lowered federal reimbursement rate in 1996--is significant, said Jim Weill, the president of FRAC.
"The government can slow things down, but the program is still a vibrant program that states can make better," Mr. Weill said.
Still, while 10 states boosted the number of children served by the summer food program by more than 25 percent last year, 21 states actually lost ground between 1996 and 1997. Nine states experienced a decline of more than 10 percent.
Reasons for rising or falling participation rates vary. Many families with eligible youngsters don't know that food is available in the summer, and potential food-site sponsors often hesitate to launch a program that lasts only three months, according to child nutrition experts.
Sometimes, all it takes to shrink statewide participation in the summer food program is neglect, said Mr. Weill.
"What makes the difference is the willingness of public officials to keep the foot on the accelerator," Mr. Weill argued. "Where states fall behind is essentially where people don't give a damn."
State Promotional Efforts
The USDA sponsored a conference in January to help generate enthusiasm for expanding the program nationwide. In a speech at the conference, Shirley Watkins, the USDA undersecretary for food nutrition and consumer services, said the summer food program has languished as the "stepchild" among federal child-nutrition programs for too long.
USDA officials followed up with a publicity campaign, sending informational brochures to schools superintendents and potential nonprofit sponsors across the country. They also moved to streamline the application process for veteran food-site sponsors, said Mr. Haga.
Building on its own momentum, the Florida Department of Education and the Florida Impact Education Fund, a nonprofit group, have continued to step up their outreach efforts, including sending informational pamphlets to local welfare and health departments in 60 counties. Last year, the state distributed pamphlets in only seven counties. ("Fla. Educators Hoping To Beef Up Lunch Program," July 9, 1997.)
In 1997, the state education department spent $56,000 to try to reach more children, and state officials plan to spend at least as much this year, Mr. Brogan said. The federal government reimburses summer meal providers for food and administrative costs on a per-meal basis, but does not pay for statewide promotional efforts.
The Florida Lottery is also underwriting public service announcements that advertise a toll-free hot line that students or others may call to locate the nearest summer food site.
Vol. 17, Issue 42, Page 21