Summer meal program participation drops statewide
Most students look forward to the last day of school as a chance to lose their school supplies for swim gear and summer clothes.
But thrown away with their folders and notebooks for more than half a million students in Pennsylvania is the guarantee of a warm meal every weekday.
A new report from the Food Research and Action Center (FRAC) shows that fewer than 1 in 5 students who qualified for free or reduced-cost lunches received meals last year through summer food programs. While the ratio is better than the national average, the rate represents a 7.2 percent decline from the summer of 2012, when about 25 percent of low-income students participated.
According to Caryn Long, executive director of the food aid partnership Feeding Pennsylvania, the decline is due primarily to a growing number of children at risk of hunger.
“Even though the economy is recovering, we're seeing a lot of low-income families lagging behind,” she said. “With unemployment, reduced wages and other challenges, there's a growing number of children who are eligible for free or reduced lunches.
“The number of food sites available in the state actually increased last summer, it's just that there's more children who need them.”
The U.S. Department of Agriculture administers the Summer Nutrition Programs, which include the Summer Food Service Program and National School Lunch Program. The system was established to ensure that low-income children continue to receive nutritious meals when school is out of session.
Across the country, millions of low-income children lose access to these meals. And even with 700 feeding sites set up across the state, about 564,000 in Pennsylvania slip through the cracks, according to the FRAC's annual report titled “Hunger Doesn't Take a Vacation.”
One factor contributing to the disconnect, according to Long, is transportation. It's an issue that's felt in rural and urban areas alike, she said, with high concentrations of poverty being a requirement for USDA feeding site approval — applicants typically must show that at least 50 percent of the area's student population qualifies for free or reduced lunch to be eligible.
“In some of the sprawling rural areas, some of the families don't have cars and the distance to travel is overwhelming,” Long said. “In urban areas, even if it's just a half-mile or mile walk, sometimes getting their safely becomes a problem.”
The latter is sometimes an issue for the Salvation Army in New Kensington, which has served as a program feeding site for about two decades, chapter Captain Elvie Carter said. Some parents, he said, are wary of letting their children walk to the Fifth Avenue downtown location on their own.
“New Kensington is a nice place to live, but there are some areas that concern parents,” Carter said. “We still have a lot of kids. If they show up, we feed them. Some of them come here from as far as Parnassus.”
The Salvation Army in New Kensington serves breakfast and lunch to about 70 children every weekday during the summer. Despite statewide figures of declining participation rates, Carter said the numbers tend to grow slightly each year.
To meet the demand, the Salvation Army gets all of its food from the Westmoreland County Food Bank, which is reimbursed by the USDA . A USDA spokeswoman could not be reached for comment.
Many of the children who arrive for breakfast stay for a day camp that the Salvation Army offers from 8:30 a.m. to 2 p.m., Carter said. The program will run from Monday, June 16, to August 15.
“We not only provide meals, but free summer recreation in a safe and structured environment,” Carter said. “It's a well-needed program. Some of the kids would be in serious trouble if these supplements weren't here.”
In Allegheny County, the same services are offered at the Verona United Presbyterian Church, which has served as a summer feeding site for 10 years. Like the Salvation Army in New Kensington, participation is rising. Last year, according to program co-director Judy Myers, about 40 to 60 children from a group of about 125 regulars would come in for lunch during the weekdays.
That site also runs a day camp, called the Summer Lunch and Fun Camp, from 8:30 a.m. to 2 p.m. on weekdays. The program will run from June 16 to Aug. 8, Myers said.
Despite increased participation at local sites, Long said changes need to be made at the state and local level to benefit as many low-income children as possible. The Feeding Pennsylvania executive director said a reasonable goal would be to reach 40 of every 100 low-income students through the summer program. Raising the current percentage from 18.7 to 40 would provide meals for about 225,000 children in total in Pennsylvania, according to the FRAC.
A major tipping point could come in 2015 when reauthorizing the Child Nutrition Act of 1966 comes before Congress. Groups like Feeding Pennsylvania are lobbying lawmakers to revise the bill to allow greater flexibility in dealing with hunger issues.
Braden Ashe is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 724-226-4673 or firstname.lastname@example.org.