Low Appetite Seen for Free Summer Lunches

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On a recent hot summer day, 5-year-old Asya inhaled her beef tacos, left her corn on her plate, and dug into dessert.

She said she liked having summer lunches at the Frederick Community Action Agency here, about 45 miles from Washington, "because they have pudding."

During the summer months, the Frederick agency, which also provides outreach, health care, and other services to the homeless and needy, serves more than 60 meals a day to school-age children. The agency is reimbursed for the cost of meals by the federal government and is one of hundreds of sponsors across the country that provide breakfast, lunch, or snacks to children who during the academic year get free or reduced-price meals in school.

But advocacy groups and federal nutrition officials worry every summer that millions of children aren't getting the meals they need when school is out.

Undersecretary of Agriculture Eric M. Bost—who is in charge of the Agriculture Department's Food, Nutrition, and Consumer Services—has made it a top priority to expand the Summer Food Service Program and entice more children to eat summer lunch and breakfast through federal programs. And a new bill introduced in the Senate to extend a summer-lunch pilot program to all 50 states is being welcomed by advocacy groups and politicians like a pepperoni pizza among teenagers.

A report released in June by the Washington-based Food Research and Action Center, or FRAC, found that in July of last year, 3.2 million children ate their share of Tater Tots and peanut butter sandwiches through summer nutrition programs—only a fifth of the 15.3 million youngsters who received subsidized lunches during the regular school year.

"The gap is huge, and that is a concern for particularly the people and kids at the bottom end of the economic spectrum," said Barry Sackin, the staff vice president for public policy for the Alexandria, Va.-based American School Food Service Association, which represents state and local food-service providers across the country.

Complicated Rules

Another trend that worries both Mr. Bost and FRAC is that overall participation in the summer food program did not increase from 2000 to 2001.

The group's report found that some groups didn't participate in the program because paperwork was too complicated, regulations surrounding the program were too confusing, or federal reimbursements were too low. Sites that receive federal reimbursements must be "open" and feed any child who walks in, not just those enrolled in a camp or activity.

"The requirements for getting a reimbursement for summer food is more complicated than most child-nutrition programs," said Nicole Woo, a senior policy analyst at FRAC. "That's why a lot of sponsors are hesitant to get involved or drop out."

Nancy Waalkes, a coordinator for the food program in Frederick, agreed that the process is complex, but said that after going through it for several years, she has been able to master the intricacies. She also said that her agency often spends more than the federal allocation for meals, but that the difference is paid for by funds for the soup kitchen the agency also offers.

"We try to serve hot, really nutritious meals," Ms. Waalkes said. "For some kids, it could be their only meal of the day."

Last month in Frederick, Asya was eating her lunch in a restored, historic train station as part of a YMCA program to prepare children for kindergarten. During the year, the children have lunch in school, said Maria Aldrich, the director of the Judy Hoyer Center at the YMCA.

The FRAC report found there are ways to increase the number of children who are served meals in the summer. Cutting red tape and increasing reimbursement payments ranked high. Thirteen states involved in a pilot program that began in 2001 increased participation by an average of 9 percent from the previous year.

The pilot program, proposed by Sen. Richard Lugar, R-Ind., eases the paperwork load and provides the maximum reimbursement for all meals. Last month, Sen. Lugar proposed allowing all 50 states to participate in the program.

"Although this program is the largest federal resource available to feed children during the summer, it is clear that there is substantial unmet need," he said in a statement.

Mr. Sackin said it's possible that the Lugar bill could pass this year as an attachment to another bill and that it has support among politicians on both sides of the aisle.

Vol. 21, Issue 42, Page 5

Published in Print: July 10, 2002, as Low Appetite Seen for Free Summer Lunches
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