Summertime and Poor Children Are Hungry

Many of us think of summer as a season of abundance–juicy peaches, tomatoes that really taste like something, neighbors begging us to take some of their zucchini.

But for poor children summer often means hunger. During the school year they can get free lunches and, in many schools, breakfasts. At some after-school programs, they can also get snacks.

Then comes summer, and families who had to feed them only once a day during the school week now have to provide all their meals. Surveys indicate that food insecurity rates for families with children spike in the summer. It’s easy to understand why.

The federal government has two programs to address this problem–the Summer Food Service Program and the Seamless Summer Option. The latter is only for school districts that participate in the National School Breakfast and/or Lunch Programs. But SFSP sites can be sponsored by other types of organizations.

As with the school-year nutrition programs, summer meal providers are reimbursed for the meals they serve. At most sites, they can serve up to two meals a day (but not both lunch and supper). They have the option of serving any child who shows up. And meals for all children are free.

Sounds like the answer, doesn’t it? Well, that depends on where the poor children live and the commitment of the local community to feed them.

Here in Washington, D.C., our schools, recreation centers and nonprofits do a great job. According to the Food Action and Research Center’s latest summer meals report, nearly 96% of D.C. children who got free or reduced-price lunches during the 2006-7 school year were participating in a summer meal program in July 2007.

But nationwide, summer meal programs served only 17.5% of children who got free or reduced-priced lunches during the school year–11.8% fewer than were served in 1997.

The most important reason for this is that the eligibility standards for summer meal programs are very restrictive–more so than they used to be. To get reimbursed for meals, most programs must be in a community where 50% or more of the children qualify for free or reduced-price schools meals or have, as enrolled participants, at least 50% who meet this standard.

This is no problem for programs in high-poverty areas, but it tends to exclude programs in areas with pockets of poverty.

Reimbursement rates are a second barrier. Except for rural and “self-prep” sites, i.e., those that actually prepare what they serve rather than getting meals from a central source, breakfasts are reimbursed at $1.78, lunches and suppers at $3.18 and snacks at $0.73.

These are slightly higher than the school-year reimbursement rates, but still very low relative to the costs of balanced, nutritious meals. FRAC says that rising food costs are forcing sponsors to drop out, cut back on sites or compromise on quality. They are also probably a reason that many sites don’t operate all summer long.

Transportation is another barrier, especially in suburban and rural areas, where sites are widely scattered. Communities that want to serve as many eligible children as possible have to fund transportation or put their sites on wheels to get to where the kids are.

There are also start-up and outreach costs. Parents need to be informed, on an ongoing basis, that free summer meals are served and where. Here I again tip my hat to D.C., which has a very good online summer program search.

Congress will have an opportunity to revisit the summer meal programs as part of its reauthorization of the Children’s Nutrition Act. Clearly, it needs to address the 50% area eligibility requirement and the meal reimbursement rates. Feeding America also recommends expanding a pilot program that helps rural communities overcome transportation barriers.

And shouldn’t poor children be able to get free suppers, as well as lunches, year-round?

One Response to Summertime and Poor Children Are Hungry

  1. […] 29 states managed to increase participation in their summer meal programs. And they faced some barriers that don’t apply in […]

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