The Food Research and Action Center’s latest summer meals report delivers sad news — both for the nation as a whole and for the District of Columbia.
Downward Trend Nationwide
Last July, federally-subsidized summer meal programs served only 14.6% of children whose families were poor enough for them to have gotten free or reduced-price lunches during the school year.
This means that as many as 16.4 million children were at risk of hunger last summer, even during the month that’s generally the peak for summer meal programs.
The latest participation rate continues a five-year downward trend.
Summer meal programs served 15.1% of low-income children in July 2010 — 24,000 more than last July. In July 2006, well before the recession set in, they served 17.7%.
The recession then is part of the story. As family incomes dropped, more and more children became eligible for free or reduced-price school meals.
Summer meal programs would have had to expand a lot to serve the same percent — enough, FRAC’s reports indicate, to serve over 2.8 million more children than during the 2006-7 school year.
At the same time, however, state and local budget constraints led school districts to reduce or altogether eliminate their summer programs — one of the main sources of federally-subsidized free summer meals.
The loss of children served by these programs more than offset increases in summer meal programs sponsored by nonprofits and other entities eligible for subsidies under the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Summer Food Service Program.
DC Trends Downward Too
The District has been out in front of any state for as long as FRAC has been reporting summer meal participation figures — and way out in front since 2004.
But its recent participation rates generally mirror the nationwide trend.
Last July, local programs served 73.5% of low-income children who’d benefited from its free and reduced-price school meals. Far better than New Mexico — the highest-ranked state — which served 31.2%.
But in July 2010, summer meal programs in D.C. reached 80.2% of low-income children, so defined — 2,245 more than last summer.
I’d hopefully written that the 2010 rate seemed to signal a turnaround, though the percent increase over 2009 was small.
Now it seems that the uptick was a blip — not a sign that the District was on its way to restoring its earlier extraordinarily high participation rates.
Back in 2007, the District’s summer meal programs were serving 95.9% of children who’d received free or reduced-price school lunches.
And even the following summer, with the recession underway, the program served 88.8%.
As I remarked earlier, we need to consider the base for the participation rate, i.e., the number of children who received free or reduced-price lunches during the prior school year.
The base for the District has increased during each of the past three school years. So local summer meal programs as a whole could have sustained the same participation rate only by serving more children.
This, however, doesn’t explain the marked 6.7% drop between 2010 and 2011 because, according to the FRAC report, only 125 more children received free or reduced-price lunches during the 2010-11 school year.
I doubt lack of access explains it either. Last summer, meals were available at more than 250 sites and in every ward. Wards 7 and 8, where presumably need was highest, had 64 sites between them.
We Need to Do Better
Whatever the reasons, we’ve got to hope for a real turnaround — here in the District and in the 18 states where participation rates also dropped. Hope as well for continuing progress in the 32 states that managed to raise their rates.
Because, as the titles of FRAC’s annual reports say, hunger doesn’t take a vacation.
We know, in fact, that it increases during summer months in low-income families with children — presumably because parents have to stretch their food stamps and/or budgets to feed their kids meals that schools provide during the rest of the year.
We also know that hunger increases less in states that have relatively high summer meal participation rates.
Need I add that we know hunger is very bad for kids? Of course not.