Summer Meal Program Participation Rate Ticks Down Nationwide, Plunges in DC

The Food Research and Action Center’s tenth annual report on federally-subsidized summer meal programs delivers mixed news for the nation as a whole.

News for the District of Columbia is just plain bad — worse, in fact, than last year’s. And I’m still puzzled, though I’ve got a few glimmers now.

Nationwide Summer Meal Participation

On any given weekday in July 2012, about 12,790 more low-income children received a free meal from a school, other government agency or nonprofit subsidized by one of the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s funding sources.

This does not, however, mean that summer meal programs served a higher percent of children in need because the number of children poor enough to receive free or reduced-price school lunches during the school year increased by somewhat more than 444,500.

By this benchmark, the percent of low-income children served by summer meal program dropped by 0.3%.

Very slight, but it means that only 14.3% of these children received a free, well-balanced meal during the summer recess. That left some 16.8 million children at risk of hunger.

They lived in families with incomes no higher than 185% of the federal poverty line — apparently much lower in more cases than not.

Last year, 59% of children in the school lunch program qualified for free meals. Most thus had family incomes no higher than 130% of the FPL — about $24,800 for a family of three.

In 2010-11, 14.7% of these children were food insecure or sometimes actually didn’t have enough to eat, even though their families also received food stamp benefits, according to a recently-published USDA analysis.

So need is outstripping capacity to serve. But over the long haul, capacity is shrinking too.

Even with last year’s increase, summer meal programs still served 3% (about 99,100) fewer low-income children than they did in July 2008 — and 7.8% fewer than the peak in July 1998.

DC Summer Meal Participation

The District’s summer meal participation rate plummeted — from 73.5% in July 2011 to 59.8% last July.

True, this is still higher than any state’s rate, but we don’t have an apples-to-apples comparison here. The District is, after all, a city. It’s got none of the challenges states face because they’ve got children dispersed in far-flung suburbs and rural areas.

The year-to-year comparisons for the District itself probably are fairly reliable. So the sudden, large rate drop is alarming — especially because it’s not one of those things we can lay off on recession-related poverty increases.

Specifically, the summer meal participation rate didn’t plunge because vastly more children received free and reduced-price lunches during the school year. Only 944 more did.

It’s almost entirely due to a large decrease in the number of low-income children the District’s summer meal programs served — 4,249 fewer than in July 2011.

With the exception of a blip the summer before, both the number of children served and the participation rate have been trending down since July 2007, when the District’s programs served nearly 96% of low-income children.

Yet both District government agencies and local nonprofits have worked hard to make summer meals readily available — and known to low-income families in the community.

Last July, meals subsidized by USDA’s Summer Food Service Program were offered at 338 sites across the city — 16 more than the year before.

What I understand now, however, is that the sheer number of sites is too crude a measure. We need also to consider how big the programs were and whether they were programs kids were likely to participate in for reasons other than getting something to eat.

From this perspective, the large reduction in the District’s public summer school enrollment may help explain last summer’s lower participation rate. Also perhaps reduced funding for nonprofit day camps and other summer activities.

A bright spot in all of this is that DC Hunger Solutions — a mover-and-shaker in the District’s nutrition programs, including summer meals — plans to do a deep dive into the participation data.

Let’s hope what it finds helps get the rate turned around.

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One Response to Summer Meal Program Participation Rate Ticks Down Nationwide, Plunges in DC

  1. […] Fewer poor children are receiving free summer meals (Poverty & Policy) […]

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