A child gets a lunch of low-fat pizza, milk and grapes at Denver's Eagleton Elementary School, one of 40 DPS schools to run a free summertime feeding program.

Children’s learning isn’t the only thing that takes a hit during the long summer vacation. For many low-income children, school may be the only place they’re assured of a good meal so summer can mean nutritional setbacks or outright hunger.

But thanks to a coalition of anti-hunger groups and the governor’s office, Colorado has launched an aggressive campaign to expand the Summer Food Service Programs offered at schools, churches and other venues around the state, and to publicize the availability of free meals in communities where the need is great.

More than 275 feeding sites have opened or will soon open for the summer, all offering free lunches and many offering free breakfasts as well for children aged 1-18. Adults are welcome to eat too, for a $3 charge. No registration or proof of income is required. The nutritionally balanced meals are funded through the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Officials hope to feed at least 25,000 children in Colorado this summer, a dramatic increase from previous years. In 2008, only 15,000 Colorado children participated in a summer feeding program. But with more than 300,000 children in the state qualifying for free or reduced-price lunches during the school year, that put Colorado 46th in the nation in the percentage of low-income children participating in a summer program.

“Ninety-two percent of kids who qualify for food assistance don’t get it in the summer,” said Katharine Moos, program manager for the Colorado Campaign to End Childhood Hunger. “And with the economy the way it is, and one in five families experiencing food hardship, it’s safe to assume there are even more families out there who need this program.”

Connie Harlow, senior consultant and administrator of the Summer Food Program for the Colorado Department of Education, recalled an e-mail she got last summer from a woman running a day camp for children sponsored by the Salvation Army. The woman had asked one of the young campers what he liked most about the camp, which offered such amenities as trout ponds, soccer fields and paddle boats. “He said his favorite thing at camp was getting three meals a day,” Harlow said. “That just points out how lacking a lot of children are in getting the nutrition they need.”

Moos shares a story from a colleague in Texas who said one boy confessed to him that he deliberately failed his classes so he would be required to go to summer school because he knew at school he could get a meal. “That’s heartbreaking,” Moos said. “This little boy, to use wonky bureaucratic terms, was managing his food insecurity. But if that happened in Texas, where the rates of participation in summer food programs are about the same as in Colorado, then it’s happening here as well.”

Last fall, the Campaign to End Childhood Hunger was launched in partnership with Gov. Bill Ritter, Lt. Gov. O’Barbara O’Brien, the national anti-hunger organization Share Our Strength, and Hunger Free Colorado. The campaign has been working for months to recruit new sites and new partners to participate in the summer feeding program.

On June 2, Denver Public Schools – which operates more than 40 Summer Feeding Program sites – kicked off the summer by bringing in Denver Nuggets star Chauncey Billups and O’Brien to join youngsters having lunch at Eagleton Elementary School in west Denver.  On the menu: pizza with whole-wheat crust and low-fat cheese, fresh fruit, vegetable sticks and milk. Government regulations require the meals to contain a minimum of 2 ounces of protein, a serving of grain, a serving of milk and ¾-cup of two different fruits and vegetables.

“At our height last year, when all the sites were open, our high day was about 14,000 kids,” said Bob Gorman, area food service supervisor for DPS. “After July 4, the numbers really die down. But during the school year, we feed between 40,000 and 50,000.”

Many of the schools and other meal venues run day camp programs for children during the summer. But officials stress that the meals aren’t limited just to children participating in those activities. “The program is set up for kid who don’t have a place to go and need something to eat,” Gorman said. “It doesn’t matter your income or your eligibility, if you can get there, we’ll feed you.”

Hours vary from site to site but most serve lunch around 11 to noon. Those that serve breakfast generally do so around 8 a.m.

“In some areas, seniors like to go and eat too because they’re getting a balanced lunch for less than $3, and they like to interact with the children,” said Harlow. “It’s kind of a win/win situation for everybody.”

Successful as officials have been in getting more feeding sites running in urban and suburban areas, rural areas still pose problems.

“There are some areas where children just don’t have the transportation to get from their home to where a summer feeding program may be located,” Harlow said. “People don’t sponsor sites in rural areas because kids can’t get there so it’s a vicious cycle.”

For more information

For information about the Colorado Summer Food Service program, including an interactive map to locate the feeding sites nearest your home, click here.

For background information on the Summer Food Service Program, including its legislative history, reimbursement rates, and current priorities, click here.