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Too Few Kids Served by Mississippi's Summer Food Program

In my latest story for The Hechinger Report and Mississippi Public Broadcasting, I take a look at challenges in providing summer meals for low-income students in rural Mississippi.

This program was in the news recently after Republicans in the U.S. House of Representatives  proposed a bill that would prioritize low-income children in rural areas for a pilot program, which since 2010 has targeted both rural and urban kids. Mississippi is one of several states that has participated in this pilot program. In 2010 and 2011, the state received federal funding to offer activities at meal sites to see if it would increase attendance. Between 2010 and 2011, the number of meals served in Mississippi increased by about 16 percent. 

Still, the program continues to reach only a fraction of kids who typically receive free or reduced-price meals during the year in Mississippi. In July 2013, fewer than 6 percent of low-income kids in the state received meals through the program.

Lenora Phillips, director of Mississippi's Summer Food Service Program, says it's been hard to find places to run new meal sites and continue the program during the entire summer. Most food sites stop serving the free meals in mid-July, even though school doesn't start in most places until August.  

In June, I spent several days traveling around the state to attend kickoff events aimed at raising awareness for the program. After one event, I sat in a school cafeteria and talked to kids about their meals. They were frank about their summer diets, and admitted they eat "junk," like "hot chips, pickles, and juices." Lunch for the day consisted of hamburgers, french fries, apples, and milk. I asked one student if she was going to eat her apple, and she said no. Her friend quickly corrected her. "You should probably say yes," he whispered. When I left, I peeked into the garbage can and saw dozens of untouched apples.

It gets to a larger issue that was brought to my attention by Linda McGee, the food services director for a school district in tiny Rolling Fork, Miss., which is classified by the USDA as a food desert. The town has two small grocery stores, and residents must drive more than 35 miles to a  larger neighboring town to buy more affordable groceries.  

McGee said that the food gap goes beyond access, and is also due to the sheer unfamiliarity of healthy foods. "This is not the type of food they're served at home," she said. "Our culture usually fixed vegetables according to the way that they have had their grandmothers and great-grandmothers fix vegetables. Therefore they're adding a lot of salt, oils...in order to make them taste good, which is taking away from them being healthy." 

To combat this, McGee is attempting to add healthy fruits and vegetables to school meals whenever possible. But she said it can be harder to impact habits at home, since many parents lack knowledge of healthy foods as well as healthy ways to prepare those foods. For working parents in rural communities, McGee said there may not be time to prepare healthy meals, especially in the evenings, before grocery stores close. "If you haven't bought anything by 7 o'clock then you're going to have to eat something from fast food or you're going to have to drive 36 miles to get [groceries]," McGee said.

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