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Flurry of Bills in Congress Seek to Expand Summer Meals Programs

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The upcoming deadline to reauthorize the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010 has triggered a surge of bills in Congress to give more children access to more meals during the summer.  

The Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act is the current version of the Child Nutrition Act of 1966, in the same way that No Child Left Behind is the current name given to the Elementary and Secondary Education Act.

Of the nearly 22 million children who receive free and reduced-price lunches during the school year, about 3.6 million, or 16 percent, participate in the federal summer nutrition programs, according to a report released last month, by the Washington-based Food Research & Action Center.

The numbers have been rising in recent years, partly because states and communities have started to reinvest in summer school and summer-enrichment programs since the recession ended. But it's not reaching nearly enough children, said Senator Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., a sponsor of the Summer Meals Act of 2015.

"For many children, the only meals they eat are provided at school, and that means some children go hungry over summer break," said Gillibrand in a written statement

The bipartisan bill, co-sponsored by Senator Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, has an identical version in the House of Representatives sponsored by another GOP Alaskan, Representative Donald Young, and Rick Larsen, D-Wash.  

A key component of the bill would make it easier for more community-based organizations to qualify for participation in summer meals programs.  

Currently, in order to qualify for federal summer meals reimbursements, at least 50 percent of the children living in the area served by a community organization or school have to be eligible for free and reduced-price lunches.

The bill would lower that to 40 percent, which is the same level for summer programs that receive federal funding under Title I or 21st Century Community Learning Centers grants. 

"It's the most restrictive test these programs have ever had," said Jennifer Adach, senior manager at the research and advocacy group, noting that until 1981, the threshold for participating was 33 percent. "It's particularly hard for rural and suburban areas to meet this 50 percent requirement since poverty is less concentrated in these areas." 

In the Rochester-Finger Lakes region of upstate New York, 91,000 students took part in the free and reduced-price lunch program during the school year, but only 11,475 participated in the summer.  Sen. Gillibrand said her bill would expand the program to at least another 9,100 children. 

FRAC created maps showing the impact of the change in every state and the District of Columbia. In the following map of Maine, the blue areas represent the regions that aren't currently eligible to provide free summer meals for low-income children, but would be under the 40 percent level.

Maine summer lunches.png

The bill would also streamline the application process for summer meals so children who are eligible for free and reduced-price meals during the school year and attend summer programs run by the same providers don't have to reapply.

It provides transportation grants to make sure that children in rural and other underserved areas have access to summer meals, and it would reimburse summer programs for providing up to three meals a day instead of two.

The Summer Meals Act has garnered strong support from advocacy groups that focus on curbing summer learning loss.  Erik Peterson, the vice president for policy at the Afterschool Alliance, said a number of studies in recent years have found that children growing up poor, who don't get enough to eat, especially healthy food, may be slower to develop as infants and suffer health problems that make it more difficult to focus on school.

"If you separate those out and focus on just getting food to kids that would address hunger, but not learning loss, and if you just focus on learning loss then that doesn't address hunger," said Peterson.

"We want to emphasize the combined impact of summer meals and summer learning," added Rachel Gwaltney, the director of policy and partnership at the National Summer Learning Association in Baltimore. 

Last week, a coalition of advocacy groups, including Peterson's and Gwaltney's, held a social media action aimed at raising the profile of the bill. Summer meals programs across the country tweeted about their programs using the hashtags #SummerMealsAct and #SummerLearning, and posted photos and stories online. They've been gathered on Storify and a Pinterest board.

Another bill in the House and Senate called the Stop Child Summer Hunger Act of 2015, would give families an electronic benefit transfer card, essentially a debit card, to buy food over the summer.  The cards would be loaded with $150 for each child in the family who qualifies for free and reduced-price lunch during the school year. 

Both bills have been assigned to the Agriculture Committee in the Senate and the House Committee on Education and the Workforce.  No hearings are scheduled yet, but the bills' sponsors say they are hoping to have them incorporated into the Hunger-Free Kids reauthorization, which is scheduled to begin in the Senate agriculture committee on September 17.

Moving a stand-alone bill into law is hard, Matthew Shucherow, a spokesman for Congressman Young, explained to Education Week. He said this bill was a way to lay out the focal points and build support for  what the sponsors want to see added to the next version of the Child Nutrition Act. 

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