Summer is here, and school will be out for more than two months. For many low-income families, that’s bad news. Not only do their kids have little or nothing to do, but it can be an especially hungry time for them. Approximately 16 million children receive free or reduced-price meals during the school year from the National School Lunch Program, but only a shamefully small fraction of them receive a free lunch or breakfast during the summer either from a summer extension of the NSLP or through the separate Summer Food Service Program.
Started in 1968 primarily as a way to move children into summer activities, the summer food program has never fed more than a small proportion of the children who needed meals. In recent years, the number of children in the programs has averaged fewer than 3 million, less than 20 percent of the number who receive federally funded lunches during the school year; almost half the states–including Texas, Florida, Michigan and Ohio–scored less than 15 percent in the summer of 2005. Since all children who show up for the activities are fed, regardless of whether they need the free meals, the number of low-income children served during the summer may well be fewer than even these dismal percentages. Moreover, most of these programs operate for only part of the summer, so the number of free meals actually served is probably less than a tenth of what would be provided were the summer service to reach all the children covered by the school-year program for the full vacation.
Even more troubling is that the number of children receiving lunch during the summer has steadily gone down in recent years, dropping to 2.8 million in 2005 from a high of 3.1 million in 2000, even though the number of needy children has gone up by 1.3 million during those years, as poverty levels have risen. A recent report by the US Conference of Mayors found that in the twenty-three cities surveyed, requests for food assistance by families with children increased by an average of 5 percent in 2006.
The current summer food programs are not likely to do much better. Under the Summer Food Service Program, which is the main one, the Agriculture Department reimburses qualified sponsors–school systems, recreational programs and other public or nonprofit organizations–for meals served at sites chosen to maximize access to low-income children. It appears, however, that many, if not most, poor parents don’t know these programs exist, and even when they do, they often find it hard to get the children to them. Also, finding sponsors and sites is difficult because the reimbursement rates for the food are inadequate (they were cut in 1996 as part of the assault on welfare), the qualification criteria are strict and the administrative requirements cumbersome. Finding volunteers to staff the sites is not easy either, especially in poor neighborhoods, where many people are working two or three jobs just to get by.
A more rational summer food program would not depend on getting the children to the food but on getting the food to the children. Not directly, which could raise complicated distribution problems, but in the same way food is provided today through the food stamps program: by making electronic benefit cards available to all children eligible for the National School Lunch Program, for use by their parents at participating food outlets. This would eliminate the parent-awareness problem, the search for sponsors and sites, the elaborate red tape and the reimbursement inadequacy. Summer school and other activities would continue, but the sites where only food is provided could be abandoned.
The chances of such a program being adopted, however, are nil. Food advocates are struggling to hold on to what they have in the face of Bush Administration efforts to cut food stamps and other social programs, so that even a limited pilot program has little or no chance of being adopted.
Some improvements can be made, however. The District of Columbia has had a remarkably high participation rate in recent years. Through a strong grassroots marketing program that starts at the beginning of the school year and uses community organizations, ads at local movie theaters, supermarket in-store announcements, and a steady stream of fliers, radio and TV ads, the District reached an 84 percent participation rate at 376 sites last summer. Much of what it does is not expensive and can be replicated by other local governments and school systems.
Congress could also improve the summer food program. For example, legislation sponsored by Senator Richard Lugar in 2000 that cuts the paperwork and increases reimbursement rates has significantly raised participation in the nineteen states that were previously at the bottom. That legislation can and should be extended to all fifty states. So far Congress has refused because the estimated cost range is $25-$75 million over five years. That’s $5-$15 million a year, barely a flyspeck on the federal budget.
Malnutrition affects a child’s ability to learn, her physical and emotional health, and overall prospects for a decent life. A nation that can find hundreds of millions–billions–of dollars for tax cuts for the rich, military adventures and bridges to nowhere can surely afford to feed its hungry children.