Eligible Children Still Missing Summer Meals

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More than 3 million U.S. children from low-income families received meals at recreation centers, schools, tutoring programs, and other sites last summer, but a gap in services left millions more unserved and more than $200 million in resources unspent, concludes a study of federal summer-nutrition programs.

"Hunger Doesn't Take a Vacation," a report by the Washington-based Food Research and Action Center, or FRAC, assesses the progress of two summer- nutrition initiatives: the Summer Food Service Program and the National School Lunch Program. The programs are financed by the Food and Nutrition Service, an agency of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, and administered by the states.

The study found that roughly one in five—22 per 100—of the 14.9 million children who ate free or reduced-price meals on a typical day during the school year were served by those programs during the summer months.

According to FRAC, participation in the summer-nutrition programs has remained fairly steady since 1997. The report suggests that provisions of the 1996 federal welfare-reform law, which took effect the same year, may explain why states have had a difficult time expanding the program. Congress cut food reimbursements and eliminated start-up funding for program sponsors.

Moreover, "the program hasn't always been on everyone's radar," said Doug Hess, a senior policy analyst for FRAC and an author of the report. Inadequate transportation and a lack of sites also play a role in a state's performance in the program, he added.

"There needs to be a concerted effort to increase the number of sites," Mr. Hess said. "There is a strong correlation between the average number of sites per sponsor and that state's summer food-service-program performance," he said.

Holding Steady

In most states, education agencies administer the programs, although the state health or social-service department or a nutrition-service regional office may be designated. The summer food-service program provides funds for camps and other private, nonprofit organizations, while the school lunch program, which is most often used during the school year, subsidizes such sponsors as school districts and local government agencies during the summer. All told, the two programs reached about 3.2 million children in 1999.

Sponsors provide free meals to children enrolled in an activity at a site where at least half the children are eligible for free and reduced-price lunches. At most sites, a child can receive either one or two meals each weekday.

Participation increased by at least 10 percent in eight states—Arkansas, Connecticut, Hawaii, Kansas, Montana, Ohio, Oregon, and Vermont—and the District of Columbia from 1998 to 1999. Nine states—Alaska, Delaware, Indiana, Kentucky, New Mexico, North Dakota, Rhode Island, and Wyoming—showed more than a 10 percent decrease.

Sponsorship Up

States that maintained or improved performance have been able to do so in part because of a recent increase in the number of food sites that a private nonprofit sponsor can operate, according to the report. In 1998, Congress increased that number to 25 per sponsor and eliminated the cap on the number of children sponsors may serve. FRAC found a 7 percent growth in the number of sponsors from 1998 to 1999.

Two years ago, the Food and Nutrition Service launched a campaign to make parents and children aware of the summer meals available in their communities, according to Mike Haga, a spokesman for the federal agency. "We have improved participation, quality, and accountability," he said.

"The participation numbers for this summer may be a good test as to whether the USDA's efforts to get the word out about the program are working," Mr. Haga said. But "we can only do so much; states and local governments must join our efforts."

Vol. 19, Issue 43, Page 15

Published in Print: August 2, 2000, as Eligible Children Still Missing Summer Meals
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