As in the recent past, the District far outstrips any state in the percent of low-income children its summer meal program serves. That’s the good news from the latest Food Research and Action Center’s report on summer meal programs nationwide.
During July 2009, District summer meal sites served 79.7% of children who’d received free or reduced-price lunches during the school year. (The cutoff for reduced-price lunches means they all lived in households at or below 185% of the federal poverty line.) New Mexico ranked next, with 34.3% of these children served.
End of good news.
Last year was the third in a row that the percent of low-income children served by the District’s summer meal program dropped. In 2008, the program served 88.8% and, in 2007, nearly 96%.
The program would have had to grow a bit to sustain even last summer’s percentage. Thanks undoubtedly to the recession, about 1,740 more children got free or reduced-price lunches during the 2008-9 school year than during the 2007-8 school year.
But it’s not only the percent of low-income children served that dropped. The absolute number did too. Last July, the program served 24,897 children — 1,301 fewer than in July 2008 and 4,139 fewer than in July 2007.
Not just fewer kids, but apparently fewer meals. Last summer, lunches subsidized under the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Summer Food Service Program — as most of the District’s are — totaled nearly 1.5 million fewer than in 2008. And the 2008 total was about 93,000 lower than the 2007 total.
The FRAC report doesn’t tell us why summer meal programs are shrinking — not only in the District, but in a number of states. I suspect we can chalk at least part of it up to costs. As FRAC says, reimbursement rates are too low for sponsors to break even.
Between 2007 and 2008, the D.C. summer meals program lost three sponsors. Four more were recruited for the summer of 2009. But the number of sites where meals are served has steadily declined, leaving only about two-thirds as many in 2009 as in 2007.
The posted site list for 2010 may not be final. But unless the Office of the State Superintendent of Education, which administers the summer meals program, has managed a significant expansion, there will again be fewer sites this summer. I counted 150 — 120 fewer than last year.
Okay, times are tough. But if they’re tough for sponsors, including the D.C. public schools and the Parks and Recreation Department, they’re really tough for families who depend on free and reduced-price school meals, plus perhaps free afternoon snacks to help feed their children during the school year.
Last year, 29 states managed to increase participation in their summer meal programs. And they faced some barriers that don’t apply in D.C.
The District’s program is still way out in front. But what will it take to reverse the shrinkage?