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Summer Meals Programs for Poor Children Grow, But Unmet Need Persists

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lunchbus3.jpgMore low-income children ate at federally subsidized summer meals sites in the summer of 2014, continuing a trend in growth in participation that started a few years before, a new report says.

But work remains to be done to ensure that all children who eat free and reduced-price meals during the school year have access to similar assistance in the summer, it says.

Summer meal programs, hosted by schools and approved non-profit organizations, offer free meals to children in areas where 50 percent or more of students qualify for free or reduced-price lunches. In some cases, those meals are offered from trucks and buses that go into low-income neighborhoods where children may lack transportation to meals sites.

During July 2014, the Summer Nutrition Programs served nearly 3.2 million children—an increase of 215,000, or about 7.3 percent from July 2013—says the report, released by the Food Research and Advocacy Center, an advocacy group. The programs grew to serve 16.2 percent of the children who participated in the National School Lunch Program during the 2013-14 school year, the report says. That figure was about 15 percent the previous year.

While more children are receiving summer meals, more work is needed to further strengthen the Summer Nutrition Programs so they can adequately meet children's needs, FRAC says in the report. "Participation in the Summer Nutrition Programs began dropping in July 2009, as states and communities cut back child care and funding for summer programs and summer school, which provide platforms for the Summer Nutrition Programs," it says. "This trend began to reverse in 2012 with a slight increase in participation, followed by much larger increases in 2013 and 2014. Still, only one in six of the low-income children who rely on school lunch during the school year participates in the Summer Nutrition Programs."

Policy Changes

Congress is set to reauthorize the Child Nutrition Act, which creates the rules for school and summer meal programs, in 2015. FRAC says tweaks to that law could help summer meal programs reach more children. The organization says the federal government should:

  • Lower the threshold to allow areas with 40 percent or more of students receiving free- or reduced-price lunches to be eligible for the program. Currently, the bar is set at 50 percent. 
  • Allow for free dinners to be served, in addition to free breakfasts and lunches.
  • Provide support for organizations to transport children to meal sites or to serve meals remotely through mobile units.

Photo: Children in Hudson, Fla., ate free lunches on a bus that came through their neighborhood last summer. The bus made three stops and fed about 125 children each day. --Melissa Lyttle for Education Week.

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