Fewer Poor Kids Getting Free Summer Meals3 min read

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A new report reveals that due to budget cuts the government-funded summer nutrition programs fed only one out of six low-income children in the United States last year.

The Food Research and Action Center (FRAC) report, “Hunger Doesn’t Take a Vacation: Summer Nutrition Status Report 2010,” which was released on Tuesday, found that education cutbacks forced many state and local governments across the country to reduce or eliminate their summer school programs for kids.

As a result, the report said, only 2.8 million children participated in summer nutrition programs in July 2009 — about 73,000 children fewer than in July 2008.

Last year’s drop reverses the gains that were made from 2007 to 2008 when participation in the summer nutrition programs grew by almost 50,000 children, the report added. Interestingly, many of those dropouts were low-income children in California.

“California has a huge drop and drove the national number,” said James Weill, president of FRAC. Because of the state’s large public school system, he said, the number of students dropping out of summer lunch programs in California accounts for more than half of the national drop.

The report also showed that California students in need of subsidized lunch during the regular school year has increased from 2.14 million to 2.26 million, but the number of children enrolled in summer nutrition programs has dropped from 588,000 in 2008 to 510,000 last year. This means that only one-fifth of California kids who were enrolled during the regular school year received subsidized lunch last summer.

Matt Sharp, senior advocate for the California Food Policy Advocates, which tracks the trends in summer nutrition participation by county, said the reduction of meals was jeopardizing the health of 1.9 million low-income students in the state, the majority of them from ethnic communities.

“Minority communities are disproportionably disadvantaged by the disappearance of summer school and subsequent lack of adequate resources for good nutrition,” said Sharp, who pointed out that about 60 percent of free lunch program participants are Asian, Latino or African American.

He added that the proportion of households suffering from food insecurity is higher among minority households (45 percent), compared to 31 percent in general households in California. This means the lack of access to summer nutrition programs has created greater food pressure on minority households.

In 2008, according to the U.S. Census, only 8.4 percent of children living in poverty in California were white, while 27.5 percent were African American and 25.5 percent Latino. Many of them depended on the school meals they got for the day.

Moreover, the low participation rate in summer nutrition programs also caused California to miss out on federal funds that exist to provide children with healthy food. The report found that the state lost $3.23 in federal funds for every lunch meal it failed to serve a low-income child in summer 2009.

If the participation rate in California had doubled last year, reaching two-fifths of in-need children, the report said the state would have received $27 million more in federal funds in July alone.

Both Weill and Sharp are calling on Congress to pass the Child Nutrition Reauthorization plan, which would increase children’s access to summer lunches by lowering eligibility requirements, increasing the reimbursement rate, reducing paperwork and administrative requirements for community-based providers, and providing grants to sponsors for start-up and expansion costs to bring new lunch providers into the program.

Meanwhile, some minority parents believe enhancing the quality of food is equally important.

Teresa Molina, a mother of five, has two sons enrolled in the free lunch program through the San Francisco Unified School District. She said her sons are glad that they were not getting subsidized lunches during the summer.

“They don’t like the food. They always bring food from home,” said Molina.

The FRAC report includes participation data from 50 states. The five states with the lowest summer lunch program participation are Colorado, Louisiana, Kansas, Mississippi and Oklahoma, where only one out of 20 school children who receive free lunch during the school year participate in the program over the summer.

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Vivian Po is a staff reporter for New America Media.

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