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In Summer Reading Programs, Free Meals Served Up Alongside Books

Guest blogger Gina Cairney contributed to this post

"No food or drink in the library" may be a thing of the past if public libraries follow the lead of the District of Columbia.

This summer 11 libraries in D.C. are serving children free meals as part of their effort to encourage summer reading, particularly for needy children, realizing that kids aren't going to be that engaged or interested in reading if they're walking into the library on an empty stomach. The initiative is a collaborative effort of the D.C. Public Library and its foundation, the organization D.C. Hunger Solutions, and the Office of the State Superintendent of Education.

According to the Food Research and Action Center (FRAC), a Washington-based advocacy organization focused on hunger and nutrition, D.C. is at the top of the list for jurisdictions serving summer meals to hungry children, a reach that hits 73.5 percent of children who are eligible during the school year. In addition to the library program, the District is also extending its efforts to serve meals at 350 sites this summer.

Community organizations in other parts of the country are also stepping up efforts this summer to feed needy children.

In Michigan, where 1 in 5 children lacks access to nutritious meals, Chrysler employees recently packed 12,000 backpacks with food for children, equivalent to 72,000 meals. The effort was part of a collaborative project of The Chrysler Foundation, Chrysler Group LLC, United Way for Southeastern Michigan, and Gleaners Community Food Bank of Southeastern Michigan to create awareness about childhood hunger and promote accessible summer food programs.

"Success begins with access to healthy and nutritious meals—because kids who are hungry cannot focus on learning," said Michael J. Brennan, president and CEO of the local United Way, in a press release.

But the news is not all positive. FRAC's annual summer report, "Hunger Doesn't Take a Vacation," found only 1 in 7 of the disadvantaged students who received free and reduced-price meals during the school year received summer meals last summer, a drop of 112,000 children from 2008. They attribute a large part of the problem to cutbacks in summer programs at schools that often serve meals to children over the hottest months of the year.

This trend is apparent in Northern Virginia's Stafford County, where local cuts to summer programs and summer schools have placed greater pressure on area food banks and other community organizations to provide children (and their families) food when they aren't receiving school lunches.

An article in the Free-Lance Star reports that in past summers Stafford Junction, a summer day camp and learning center, relied on schools to provide the lunches to children who attended summer school in the morning and the camp in the afternoon. But due to cuts to the local summer school program, Stafford Junction is only operating one day a week this year, because they can only afford to supply meals on that one day.

According to the article, Oya Oliver, president of the Fredericksburg Area Food Bank, said summer has always been a tough time as families leave for vacation and the donations the food banks rely on to fund meal programs run low. This, combined with the growing need for meals, especially for children, has been a challenge, she said.

Meanwhile, in California, the loss of summer-learning opportunities has resulted in lower participation in federally funded summer-meals programs, according to ABC7, because students lack a central location to gather, making them harder to reach. The number of low-income students served by the free meals program in July 2011 in California declined by six percent compared to July 2010, and over 50 percent compared to July 2002, according to a report by the California Food Policy Advocates.

Though some of the news this summer isn't that promising, the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Summer Food Service program allows summer programs, schools, community-based organizations, and sites like city parks to apply for federal reimbursements to serve meals in conjunction with state agencies. Summer programs or sites that recruit sponsors and volunteers to set up and staff feeding sites can be reimbursed (partial to nearly all) for up to two meals a day, or a meal and a snack during the summer months.

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