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Many Kids Who Eat Free School Lunches Have Few Options When School's Out

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After years of growth, the number of children who eat federally subsidized free summer meals has declined, a new report finds. 

Those meals are offered by the U.S. Department of Agriculture at a variety of sites, including schools and summer enrichment programs, in qualifying high-poverty areas.

The percentage of children who qualify for free and reduced-price meals during the school year and also take advantage of summer meal programs was already small, and it got even smaller last year, says the report by the Food Research & Action Center:

"In July 2016, the Summer Nutrition Programs served 3 million children. After four consecutive years of growth in participation, 153,000 — or 4.8 percent—fewer children were served compared to the previous summer. As participation in the Summer Nutrition Programs was dropping, school-year participation in NSLP increased by 119,000 low-income children, so the Summer Nutrition Programs met an even smaller share of its need. The summer programs served only 15 children for every 100 low-income children who participated in NSLP during the regular school year, a decrease from 15.8 to 100 the previous year."

Using data collected during July 2016, the report's authors calculated the ratio of summer meals participants to recipients of free and reduced-price meals in the national school lunch program. They used those ratios to rank the states. Here are the ten best and worst, according to the report.

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A variety of factors could contribute to the drop in summer meals participation, including 40 fewer sites serving meals in summer 2016, the report says.

So why are summer meals numbers so low in some places? The report lists a few reasons:

  • Overall, there are not enough summer educational and enrichment opportunities in many areas. Those sites, including summer learning programs at schools, are often summer meals participants.
  • Transportation can be an issue in rural areas. It's not surprising that the states ranked in the bottom 10 all have vast, rural areas. Children who live in those areas may struggle to find a ride to a meals site.
  • Serving meals can be logistically difficult. "In the months leading up to summer, the sponsors must apply to the program; attend trainings; identify the source and process for getting the meals to the sites; recruit, sign up, qualify, and train site staff; and promote or work with partners to market their sites to ensure that the families know where their children can get summer meals," the report says.
  • Some sites do not operate during the entire summer break, not starting up until mid summer or ending operations well before school starts. That can leave some children without reliable options.

As I wrote recently, you can send a text message to locate a summer meals site near you.

To see how your state stacks up, check out the summer meals report.

Photo: Nicohles, Destiny, and Desiree Kleis, from left, ate lunch inside the lunch bus, a free summer meal program in Pasco County, Fla. in 2014. A growing number of school districts are creating mobile meals programs to keep children well-fed over the summer. --Melissa Lyttle for Education Week


 Related reading about summer hunger and poverty:

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