Editor’s note: This Education Week article is one result of a partnership between EdNews Colorado and the weekly education journal, allowing us to provide in-depth stories from a national perspective.
By Mary Ann Zehr
Budget cuts for transportation and a scaling-back of summer school led to fewer children getting free lunches this summer in at least one school district, while economic pressures on families in other locations drove up participation in free or reduced-price meals programs elsewhere.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture hasn’t yet reported data for participation this year in free or reduced-price summer meals programs, but directors of food services in several districts credit the ailing economy with driving participation either up or down, depending on how programs are implemented.
The recession affected participation in nutrition programs funded by the Department of Agriculture last summer, according to an analysis of federal data by the Food Research and Action Center, a Washington-based nonprofit organization. That group, known as FRAC, reported in June that the department’s two summer meals programs — the Summer Food Service Program and theNational School Lunch Program — together served 73,000 fewer children on an average day in July 2009 than in July 2008. An average of 2.8 million children were served each day in July of last year, according to the analysis.
This summer, the number of free lunches provided to children by the Corning-Painted Post district in Corning, N.Y., dropped from 19,305 to 15,710, or by 19 percent, said Christine E. Wallace, the director of food services for the 5,400-student district.
Ms. Wallace said that the meals service was slashed in several elementary schools this summer when the district eliminated its K-5 summer school program because of a lack of funding. She said the chances for children to get free meals was also reduced because the district didn’t have any money to transport children to meals sites, such as at churches, a library, and recreation centers, as it had done the previous year. For the three summers prior to last summer, a federal grant paid for transportation of students to meals sites.
In her rural district, which covers 57 square miles, students often don’t get to summer meals sites without transportation, Ms. Wallace said.
Meanwhile, in Denver Public Schools, the size of the district’s summer school program was about the same this summer as last, but the summer nutrition program grew by leaps and bounds. This June and July the district served 123,072 lunches, up from 79,140 lunches last summer, said Leo J. Lesh, the executive director of enterprise management for the Denver schools.
He attributes the jump to an increase in need because of financial pressures on families and increased publicity for the summer nutrition program. That extra publicity was supported by Colorado Gov. Bill Ritter, who started a statewide initiative last year to end childhood hunger.
Three or four times over the summer, the governor spoke during recorded calls to the homes of the 78,000 students in the district, reminding parents of the free summer meals program.
Mr. Lesh said that the district doesn’t provide transportation to the summer meals sites, but that many children in Denver can get to them. He said that if meals are connected to a summer program, participation is higher.
“If all you are going to do is come in and eat and go home, that makes a difference in participation,” he said. “Some of the recreation centers do better [with participation] because you can go there, play basketball, and eat.”
Connecticut’s New Haven school system also saw an increase in participation in its summer nutrition program this year compared with 2009. The district served 106,451 lunches, up from 102,299 lunches last year, said Timothy Cipriano, a trained chef and the executive director of food services for the district. He attributes the increase to an increase in need among families because of hard economic times.
Summer means vacation time for lots of children, but for students from low-income families, it may not be a happy time, he said.
“When school is out, there is very little availability of good nutrition” for some students, Mr. Cipriano said. He said that food banks and soup kitchens can’t keep up with the demand in the area for food during the summer.
The New Haven district, which has about 20,000 students, has tried various methods to spread the word about a phone number that parents can call to find a summer meals site near where they live. This summer, the district worked with community partners to advertise summer meals on a billboard in New Haven. Mr. Cipriano teamed up with a group called End Hunger Connecticut! to record a public-service announcement for summer meals that aired on radio stations in the state as well.
A national group with a mission to end childhood hunger, Share Our Strength, based in Washington, estimates that only about 17 percent of children who get free or reduced-price lunches during the school year receive meals from federally funded lunch programs during the summer. The group worked with Gov. Ritter of Colorado, a Democrat, to start Colorado’s campaign to combat childhood hunger. The governor issued an executive order setting a goal of ending childhood hunger in the state by 2015.
Josh Wachs, the chief strategy officer for Share Our Strength, said his group raises money so it can provide small grants to organizations to overcome barriers to setting up sites for summer meals.
“There are federal dollars that reimburse for the food, but not for the infrastructure,” he explained. “Many sites need refrigeration, equipment, and transportation in some cases.”