When it comes to feeding low-income children when school’s out during the summer months, Colorado is at the back of the pack.

Last year, it ranked 44th  among the states and Washington DC in summer meal participation as a ratio of school year meal participation by low-income students. That ranking comes from an annual report from the Food Research and Action Center, a national group often referred to as FRAC.

Still, observers here say Colorado’s poor showing in the FRAC report doesn’t tell the whole story and obscures the state’s progress over the last five years.

Last year, the state served nearly 1.5 million summer meals, almost double the number served in 2009, advocates say. In addition, a statewide coalition of summer meal stakeholders recently ramped up efforts in high-needs communities with few or no summer meal offerings. There are 31 meal sites this summer in 29 “high priority” locations such as Alamosa, Sterling and Yuma, compared to 12 last summer.

Finding summer meal sites

“We have done incredible work to grow participation in Colorado, but there’s a lot of work still to be done,” said Cate Blackford, child nutrition program manager for Hunger Free Colorado.

The state’s goal this year is to increase total meals served by 7 percent. The meal program, which takes place at schools, churches and other community locations, is funded by the United States Department of Agriculture or USDA. It’s free for all children 18 and under.

Here are the best and worst performing states in FRAC's annual summer meals report. The ratio indicates how many students get USDA-funded summer meals for every 100 low-income students who get school meals the rest of the year.
Here are the best and worst performing states in FRAC’s annual summer meals report. The ratio indicates how many students get USDA-funded summer meals for every 100 low-income students who get school meals the rest of the year.

One statistical factor that appears to suppress Colorado’s summer meal numbers on the FRAC report is the fact that the organization looks at average daily meal attendance in July, the slower of the two big summer meal months here.

State officials say they understand why FRAC looks at July—for apples-to-apples state comparisons—but with many Colorado schools letting out in late May, June is the busier month.

In fact, if the state’s June meal attendance numbers from 2014 had been subbed in for the July numbers used by FRAC, Colorado would have achieved a ranking of 38th.

The rural conundrum

One of the biggest barriers to summer meal participation in Colorado is getting the kids to the food, especially in far-flung rural areas. All told, 44 percent of the state’s children live in rural or mixed rural settings, according to the 2015 Kids COUNT Colorado report.

“I think the impact of poverty is magnified by living in rural communities,” said Devin Koontz, public affairs director for the Mountain Plains region of the USDA.

Not only are there fewer summer meal sites in such communities, they may be all but impossible to access for families who live far away or lack reliable transportation.

Koontz noted that none of the 10 states in the USDA’s Mountain Plains region—most of them with large rural populations—made FRAC’s top 10 for summer meal participation. That honor belongs mostly to East Coast states like New York, Vermont and Connecticut.

The Mesa County Valley district launched a mobile meals program this summer after receiving $58,000 from the Western Colorado Community Foundation. The "Lunch Lizard" van stops at five locations a day, including parks and apartment complexes.
The Mesa County Valley district launched a mobile meals program this summer with $58,000 from the Western Colorado Community Foundation. The “Lunch Lizard” van came about after three of five district schools stopped offering summer meals because they could no longer pay for accompanying activities.
PHOTO CREDIT: Mesa County Valley School District 51

One major exception is New Mexico, which ranked 2nd on the FRAC report.

That state, which like Colorado releases students from school in late May, is both more rural and impoverished than Colorado. It also got a head start in offering federally-reimbursed summer meals, joining the program in 1969 when it began as a pilot. In contrast, Colorado joined after the program went national in 1975.

Compared to about 547 summer meal sites in Colorado this summer, New Mexico has about 900.

Advocates in Colorado are intrigued by their southerly neighbor’s success. Brehan Riley, program manager in the Colorado Department of Education’s Office of School Nutrition, said she and a colleague joked about taking a field trip to New Mexico.

Reagan Smetak, chief of the Family Nutrition bureau in New Mexico’s Department of Children Youth and Families, credited the program’s reach partly to involvement from the governor and other top officials.

“We get that support from the highest levels,” he said.

Jennifer Ramo, executive director of the poverty policy organization New Mexico Appleseed, said she doesn’t think the state does anything drastically different from other states. The food is about the same. The types of sponsors and sites are also similar.

“I think it’s been many years of working hard,” she said.

Creating buzz

One possible difference between Colorado and New Mexico may have to do with how the two states have educated the public about summer meals.

“We do a huge amount of outreach and I think it makes a big difference,” said Ramo.

Such efforts include handing out summer meal maps to students before schools let out and having top state officials attend summer meal kick-off events across the state. In addition, TV and radio stations often run public service announcements or otherwise cover the program.

The Colorado Department of Education is advertising the summer meals program on city buses.
The Colorado Department of Education is advertising the summer meals program on city buses.
PHOTO CREDIT: Colorado Department of Education

Colorado officials agree that public awareness is critical and say there are efforts underway to advertise the state’s summer meal program on RTD buses, in light rail cars, at select AMC movie theaters and even on receipts from certain Family Dollar stores. They’ve also sent postcards to families who receive Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program benefits, and worked with the Rockies baseball team and the Rapids soccer team to publicize the program.

“We’re just trying to ramp up the marketing and outreach pieces,” said Riley.

There’s also a push to experiment with mobile meals, which rely on buses or trucks to deliver meals to several sites within a community each day. Nine meal sponsors use that model in Colorado.

“We really believe that is a huge way to increase participation,” said Riley.

Interestingly, New Mexico has just two mobile meal programs: One in the capitol city of Santa Fe and one launched this summer in a small town east of Albuquerque.

Different model for the future?

Despite New Mexico’s relative success in delivering summer meals to low-income children, advocates there have no illusions that it’s easy, especially in remote areas.

It often comes down to nitty gritty details like ensuring that a meal site has a working refrigerator or a community organization without Internet access can circumvent the web-based application to become a summer meal sponsor.

“If someone needs a refrigerator, we make sure they get it,” said Ramo. “It’s that level of problem-solving required to address the gaps.”

An easier solution, she said, would be the addition of money during the summer months to low-income parents’ electronic benefit transfer cards. Such a program was piloted in 10 states a couple years ago and advocates believe it could make a dramatic difference.

Congress would have to act to open that program to all states.

“If we could expand that program, we could meet so many of our kids’ needs in the summer,” said Blackford.