Summer Brings Hunger, Despite Free Meal Programs for Children

“I usually do, in the summertime, go without eating, says Jean C., one of the Witnesses to Hunger. She tells her kids she’ll eat later, but the oldest has caught on.

Summer is always an especially difficult time for low-income parents with school-age children.

During most of the school year, their kids get free or reduced-price lunches. A growing number also get no-cost or low-cost breakfasts. They may get an after-school snack — or even supper — if they stay to participate in an “educational or enrichment” activity, e.g. tutoring, a photography class.

But summer rolls round. Now parents have to stretch their budgets to serve three squares a day, every day — and like as not, something in between.

Not surprisingly, Census surveys have found higher rates of food insecurity among families with school-age children during summer months.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture administers two summer meal programs designed to address this problem — one only for schools that provide subsidized lunches during the school year and one for nonprofits and government agencies generally.

With some exceptions, subsidies are available only to programs in areas where at least half the children qualify for free or reduced-price school meals — or (extra paperwork here) to those that can show that half the children they serve do.

But meals are free to all participating children. And USDA’s more inclusive program — the Summer Food Service Program — reimburses at somewhat higher rates than for free school breakfasts and lunches during the school year.

The summer meal programs are doing better than in recent years, according to the Food Research and Action Center’s just-released status report. But better isn’t all that great.

Nationwide, the programs served more than 2.9 million children during July 2013 — 15.1% of children who’d received free or reduced-price lunches during the prior school year.

This is surely better than July 2012, when they served 14.3%. The higher rate, however, reflects not only an increase in the number of children served, but a smaller decrease in the number who’d received free or reduced-price lunches.

And it’s still lower than rates before 2010, when a downward trend had already set in. By way of comparison, the rate was 20.8% in 2002.

FRAC cites recession-related budget cuts to programs that commonly serve subsidized summer meals — both summer school and a variety of others, e.g., arts and crafts classes at public recreation centers, daytime soccer camps.

Even so, only about one in five children who might have gone hungry — or more likely, caused their parents to — benefited from a summer meal program more than five years before the Great Recession set in.

This suggests other limits. So do FRAC’s more recent participation rate breakouts, which consistently show wide variations among states — in the latest case, ranging from 30.4% in New Mexico to 4.5% in Oklahoma.

First off, the SFSP hinges on sponsors to launch and operate programs — and so on interest, organizational capacities and resources the subsidies don’t provide. And so-called area eligibility, i.e., the 50% rule I mentioned above, tends to limit where they can locate their programs.

Summer meals are said to help draw children into worthwhile activities. But I’ve been told the opposite is also true.

In other words, sponsors generally need to offer activities with some appeal because the prospects of something free to eat aren’t a sufficient magnet. Or perhaps they might be, but carry a stigma the activities counteract.

Sponsors and other community organizations need to let families know what the programs offer and where — seemingly obvious, but only 40% of low-income families recently surveyed knew where free summer meal sites were located.

Transportation to program sites is a problem, especially in rural areas. Elsewhere also, since 40% of the food-insecure parents surveyed — not nearly all of them rural — cited lack of transportation as a reason their children didn’t participate in a summer meal program.

There’s a whole other kind of limit. FRAC tells us that July is generally the peak month for summer meal programs. In other words, many don’t operate from the time schools close to the time they open again.

So presumably parents of many of those more than 2.9 million children had to come up with the three squares a day during some good part of the summer vacation.

All of which is to say that USDA’s summer meal programs, fine as they are, may not be the solution to hunger for parents like Jean — and in worse cases, their children.

They could get help from a bill recently introduced in Congress — of which more in my next post.

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