Activists Seek To Increase Summer-Meals Participation

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Eating regular meals should not have to end with the school year, according to Florida officials who last week launched a two-year effort to expand a federally backed program that helps feed needy children during the summer.

The Florida initiative, hailed here last week by child-nutrition activists, will seek to build public and private partnerships to sponsor more sites where children can receive free meals through the Summer Food Service Program. The federal program guarantees meals for all eligible poor children.

"We don't want any eligible child in Florida to go hungry," Frank T. Brogan, Florida's education commissioner, said last week. "There is more than enough money available for this program."

Congress established the summer food program almost 30 years ago to ensure that children who receive federally subsidized meals during the school year would not go without during vacation. The program has never been tapped to its fullest potential, however.

Building Awareness

In 1995, only 15 percent of the children who received meals during the school year participated in the summer program. Studies show that school lunches account for up to one half of the nutrients poor children consume each day.

Lynn Parker, the director of child-nutrition programs for the Food Research and Action Center, a Washington-based advocacy group working with Florida officials, said poor marketing is at the heart of the low turnout.

Many schools and summer recreation programs are simply not aware that federal money is available to provide food.

"We're hoping that by having the Florida education commissioner give the program more visibility, it will raise the level of national awareness," Ms. Parker said. "Then, recreation centers can spend their money on other things."

An expansion of the summer food program may also mean that poor children will have greater access to other activities, she said. Summer food programs often serve as the anchor around which education and recreation programs are built.

In Spokane, Wash., police officers used breakfasts provided under the program as an opportunity to teach children lessons about traffic awareness and bicycle safety. At a public library in Franklin County, Fla., the program provided meals for children at a youth program offering life-skills training and cultural activities.

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