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There's a Free Program to Feed Hungry Kids During the Summer, But Many Miss Out

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When schools let out for summer break, some of the country's poorest students—who rely on federally subsidized school meals—lose their key source of nutrition.

Federally funded summer meal programs are designed to bridge that gap, but many children miss out, children's advocacy groups say.

Of the 20 million children who ate free and reduced-price lunches during the 2016-17 school year, only one out of seven participated in the U.S. Department of Agriculture's summer meal programs, according to a report released Wednesday by the Food Research and Action Center. And the number of children served by summer meal programs dropped by 14,000, a 0.5 percent drop from summer 2016, the report found.

That decline, and declining participation the previous year, followed a "successful multi-year effort to increase participation" through publicity campaigns promoting free summer meals sites and efforts to reduce red tape for organizations that want to participate.

The USDA's free summer meal programs allow organizations like libraries, schools, and youth programs to offer free meals to children 18 and under in areas where at least half of the children are considered low-income.

Why do so many kids miss out? There's a shortage of funding for summer enrichment programs, which often offer free summer meals. Some children aren't aware of the meals program, and many lack transportation to meals sites, especially in rural areas.

In recent years, organizations have worked with the USDA to provide options like text lines that allow families to easily locate meals sites. (Text "FOOD" to 877-877 to use No Kid Hungry's free meal-site finder.) And some participating organizations have tackled transportation barriers by serving meals in food trucks and modified buses that travel through low-income neighborhoods during the summer. 

FRAC has a goal of seeing at least 40 percent of children who eat free and reduced-price school meals participate in summer food programs. States are reaching that goal with various levels of success. The report also lists the states that feed the most and least school meals participants during the summer.

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Photo: Nicohles, Destiny, and Desiree Kleis, from left, ate lunch inside the lunch bus 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
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