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Three Ways the Feds Hope to Boost Participation in Summer Meal Programs

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lunchbus5.jpgNearly 22 million children eat free and reduced-price meals during the school year. Many of those children rely on school breakfasts, lunches, and even dinners to address a lack of adequate nutrition at home.

But only about one in six of those children participate in summer meal programs funded by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which are meant to address their hunger until school resumes.

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.

This year, the federal agency plans to continue encouraging more participation by both increasing the number of serving sites and by making families aware of the sites that already exist. The Obama administration hopes to see a total of 200 million summer meals served this summer. That's 13 million meals more than last summer's total. Here's how they plan to do it:

Making it Easier to Find Meal Sites

A "Summer Meals Site Finder," launched this year, will allow families to find nearby serving sites from their mobile phone or desktop computer. USDA plans to update the web application throughout the summer.

Partnering with Post Offices

The U.S. Postal Service will provide information about summer meals programs at 3,600 post offices in high-need rural and tribal counties throughout the country.

More Volunteers

"This summer, the AmeriCorps VISTA Summer Associate program will support nearly 60 AmeriCorps VISTA Summer Associates in rural and tribal areas, each of whom will support community outreach efforts, volunteer recruitment, in-kind donation development, and site support," the USDA said in a release.

Long-Term Strategies

This summer's strategy builds on the administration's previous  efforts to work with individual states to boost meal participation, to award grants to explore innovative strategies, and to partner with organizations like housing authorities and Boys and Girls Clubs.

In the long-term, child hunger advocates say changes to federal legislation could improve summer meals participation even more. I summarized some of their recommendations in this June blog post.

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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