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Summer Program Cuts Mean More Hungry Kids

At least 2 million low-income children in California are at risk of going hungry this summer, the Los Angeles Times reported today, because cuts to summer school and enrichment programs are wiping out the sources for meals.

Last summer alone, less than one in five Californian children who received free and reduced-price meals during the school year had access to meals during the summer, a 15 percent drop from the summer before, the article says.

But California's trend is not unique. Many states have reported similar statistics. Paradoxically, the funding for free summer meals to needy children is available, provided the sites, schools, and organizations exist to serve them.

Summer programs, schools, community-based organizations, and sites like city parks can apply for federal reimbursements to serve meals through the Summer Food Service Program or the National School Lunch Program, both federal entitlement programs administered through the U.S. Department of Agriculture in conjunction with state agencies. Summer programs/sites can be reimbursed (partial to nearly all) for up to two meals a day, or a meal and a snack during the summer months through those programs.

Given that SFSP and NSLP are federal entitlement programs, their funding remains constant, but local and state cuts to summer programs themselves the past few years have meant fewer children are getting fed during the summer.

According to the report "Hunger Doesn't Take a Vacation," released last week by the Food Research and Access Center, FRAC, a national nonprofit focused on advocacy around children's hunger and nutrition issues, 90,000 fewer children were served since summer 2008, as a result of significant program and summer school cuts caused by the economic recession. Last summer, only 15 children received the meals for every 100 who did so during the school year, meaning only one in seven who needed summer meals received them, the report concludes.

While the National School Lunch Program, which serves mostly school sites in the summer, saw a reduction in those served in summer 2010, the Summer Food Service Program did see a slight increase, though not enough to offset declining summer nutrition-program participation.

Still, Crystal Weedall FitzSimons, director of School and Out-of-School Time Programs at FRAC, said more and more nonprofits and community-based organizations are increasing efforts around summer hunger awareness and access to the federal reimbursement funds to provide children with summer meals.

While a site or program must serve a population with at least 50 percent of children who are eligible for free and reduced-price lunch during the school year, there are no requirements about program quality or components. This means sites serving reimbursed meals can range from a low-income housing project offering daily lunches to a full-day summer program at a local YMCA. But most of these sites do offer some programming, in addition to a meal, to draw kids in, FitzSimons said. Recent federal efforts have also provided more leeway on the types of programs and sites that can qualify for the nutrition-program funds.

Last week, the USDA kicked off its own efforts in a campaign to increase awareness about the importance of summer nutrition and summer food-service options for needy kids.

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