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DC Summer Meal Program Bucks National Cutback Trend

By | Jun 15, 2011

The Food Research and Action Center’s annual summer meals report reminds us that hunger doesn’t take a vacation.

Low-income children who get free or reduced-price meals during the school year need to eat during the summertime too. And their families don’t get higher food stamp benefits just because they’ve got to feed each of their school-age children as many as 10 more meals a week.

Yet the federally-subsidized summer meal programs meet only a small fraction of the need. And the fraction continues to shrink.

Last year, only 15% of children who got free or reduced-price lunches during the school year also got free summer lunches. This is 1% fewer than the summer before and 2.5% fewer than in summer 2007.

In other words, well over 15.8 million low-income children and/or their families may have spent last summer struggling against hunger.

One more thing to chalk up to the recession. On the one hand, more children poor enough to qualify for free or reduced-price school meals.

On the other hand, cutbacks in summer school programs, many of which have provided free meals. These, of course, reflect state and local budget constraints due to falling revenues and rising pressures on other safety net programs.

Yet the District of Columbia bucked the summer meals trend. For the seventh year, its participation rate was well out in front of any state’s. And by FRAC’s measures, it met a greater percentage of need than in 2009.

The shrinking program seems to be growing again.

  • In July 2010 — the peak month for most summer meal programs — the District served 80.2% of children who had received free or reduced-price lunches during the school year. This is 0.5% higher than in July 2009.
  • New Mexico — the state with the highest participation rate — served only 30.6% of its low-income school-age children — 6.4% fewer than in July 2009. Fourteen states served fewer than 10%.
  • The District’s July summer meal programs served 28,008 children — 3,111 more than in July 2009.

The key to this progress is apparently a combination of the District government’s commitment, the leadership and resource investments of DC Hunger Solutions and their aggressive outreach to faith-based organizations, other prospective nonprofit sponsors and families whose children would benefit.

FRAC reports that the summer 2010 program had five more sponsors and 47 more sites. DC Hunger Solutions Director Alexandra Ashbrook says the program is on track to add more sites this summer.

The site list indicates it’s got a good way to go. But sites don’t open before late June. And the DC Hunger Solutions partnership is still recruiting.

Here’s hoping the partnership meets its expansion target and that its plans for outreach bring even more children in.

The District is doing a great job, relative to any state. But some 6,900 low-income children got no free meals last summer. That’s a lot of kids at risk of hunger. A lot of parents who could be skimping on meals to keep them fed.

Photo credit: Laura Taylor