Fla. Educators Hoping To Beef Up Lunch Program

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At Bond Elementary School, located in one of this city's poorest neighborhoods, federally subsidized lunches don't stop for summer vacation.

Without the Summer Food Service Program, a seasonal sibling of the Federal School Lunch Program, the students participating in a new summer enrichment program at Bond would likely have to fend for themselves for lunch.

The enrichment program provides classes for 61 elementary students who could benefit from extra academic help but did not qualify for summer school.

"Their parents work all day, and they need somebody to take care of the kids," said Kathy Hood, a member of the AmeriCorps national-service organization who is coordinating the enrichment program. "For many kids, this may be the only meal they get. And we couldn't use our money to pay for the food."

Nationwide, most of the children who are eligible for free lunches under the summer food program do not receive them, officials say.

Last summer, roughly 2.2 million children--only 15 percent of those who received free or reduced-price school lunches during the school year--were served by the program, according to the US. Department of Agriculture.

But in Florida, where 43 percent of students receive free or reduced-price lunches during the school year, the state education department and Florida Impact, a nonprofit group, have been aggressively promoting the summer program.

By expanding it, they hope that when the school year begins, more students will come to class well-nourished and ready to learn.

"When there is a nutritional gap, it takes the first couple of months of school for kids to get caught up with their peers," said Anne Ehresman, a summer-food-program monitor for the Florida Department of Education. "Especially with younger kids, if their bodies are focused on survival, they're not going to be as cognitive."

Reimbursement Crunch

In 1995, the U.S. government spent 5.08 billion on the school lunch program and $236.4 million on its summer counterpart.

Students in school-based programs make up just a portion of the children, age 18 and under, who qualify for the summer program, which is a federal entitlement for anyone who meets the qualifications.

School districts, local or state governments, and private, nonprofit organizations are all eligible to set up summer meal sites in any area where at least 50 percent of the children receive free or reduced-price lunches during the school year. Any child who comes to a site can be served a free meal, regardless of family income.

Children at summer camps also can receive their meals for free as long as at least 50 percent of them qualify.

Food-site sponsors are reimbursed for a portion of their expenses depending on the number of meals they serve every day.

This summer, sponsors of summer food sites will feel a pinch resulting from federal reductions in the program's reimbursement rates. As a part of the welfare-reform measure signed into law by President Clinton last year, reimbursement rates for the summer food program were cut by roughly 10 percent, to $2.20 per lunch, including administrative costs.

That cut sent a discouraging message to sponsors, said Mike Haga, a senior field organizer at the Food Research and Action Center, an advocacy group based in Washington.

Expansion of the summer program is also held back by the program's low profile, Mr. Haga said. Children and potential sponsors aren't participating, he said, because many of them don't even know the program exists.

A 1995 FRAC-sponsored study showed that only half of the parent with children who participate in the federal school lunch program during the school year had ever heard of the summer version. "If there was more outreach, we could double or triple involvement in the program," Mr. Haga said.

But Ed Morawetz, the head of the child-care and Summer Food Service Program section of the USDA, said the main obstacle to attracting more sponsors is that the program is, by nature, short-term and unpredictable.

On any given day, depending on the weather or other factors, a sponsor might feed far fewer children than normal, making it difficult to plan, Mr. Morawetz pointed out.

"I'm not sure what we could do at this point to attract more sponsors," he said. "This is not the sort of program where you're going to see increases immediately. It takes a lot of persistence and hard work over a period of years."

Summer Fuel

With a variety of eligible sponsors, the program can take a number of different forms.

The Leon County school district in Tallahassee has a contract with a large food vendor to prepare roughly 3,000 boxed lunches every day for students in summer school and other summer programs. The vendor fills white cardboard boxes with prepared sandwiches, fruit, and cookies, then delivers them to the food sites sponsored by the school district.

By the time the meal arrive at schools like Ruediger Elementary, the students simply file through the lunch line, collecting a carton of milk, juice, and the neatly boxed lunch.

In Perry, a small, rural town about 50 miles southeast of here, three summer food programs serve an area where the tree are heavy with Spanish moss, and several streets are lined with dilapidated shacks with sagging roofs and chipping paint.

Two units of the local Boys & Girls Club chapter use the meals program to fuel their charges with enough energy to get through long summer days of tutoring, swimming, and craft-making. The third site is run by the Stewart Memorial African Methodist Episcopal Church.

Inside the red-brick church, a small group of retired women cook Southern-style meals for roughly 150 children every day. Just before the children arrive for lunch by bus or on foot, the volunteers finish their preparations, lining up crates of chocolate milk, scooping spoonfuls of steaming chicken and noodles onto plate after plate, and slicing stacks of white bread into triangles.

On a recent day, some children eyed the food skeptically, while others were quick to dig in.

"I don't like just plain bread, so I like to dip it in this," said 5-year-old Bronte Thomas, pointing to a portion of macaroni and cheese.

"If my mama's working, this food's better," added tablemate Krystal Hugger. "Because I don't have nothing to eat."

After eating, the children gathered to watch cartoons, while the volunteers mopped up messes and urged several stragglers to finish the food on their plates.

Mary Lee Williams, 64, said she's happy to help serve the meals, even though the preparation and clean-up takes most of her day.

"You have to keep yourself busy," she said. "Especially at my age."

For Donna Johnson, a caseworker at one of Perry's Boys & Girls Club sites, satisfaction comes from seeing the meals disappear.

"These kids, they don't leave a thing," she said. "They don't waste anything."

Getting the Word Out

In Florida, efforts to promote the program appear to be paying off.

Since February, when Commissioner of Education Frank T. Brogan announced plans to expand the program, the state education department has worked with Florida Impact to publish a guidebook for sponsors, distribute informational fliers to welfare offices and health departments, produce two public service announcements, and launch a toll-free number for people to call if they want to find the summer food site closest to their homes.

The hot line has answered more than 200 phone calls, some from young children trying to find the sites in their own neighborhoods, since opening June 6.

"And each of those callers tells five friends," Ms. Ehresman of the education department said.

While exact figures on the number of summer meals served in the state won't be available until after the season ends, there are early indications of success, including a 20 percent increase in the number of groups who signed on to sponsor sites.

"This is not the kind of issue you can work on and then put on the shelf," Mr. Brogan said in an interview last week. "We're going to continue to work on this until there is not one hungry child who has to go without food in the summertime."

Vol. 16, Issue 40, Pages 1, 30

Published in Print: July 9, 1997, as Fla. Educators Hoping To Beef Up Lunch Program
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