WASHINGTON — Educators have long cautioned that students can lose much of what they learn in school during the three-month summer vacation.
Yet for the 19 million students who get free and reduced-cost government-subsidized meals at school, the summer months can also mean an unhealthy vacation from good nutrition.
Instead of lean meats, fresh fruits and vegetables, low-fat milk and whole grains, many low-income youngsters ply themselves with potato chips, sodas, candy and other empty calories to carry them through the summer.
Nutritionists say it's a recipe for failure since child hunger typically spikes in the summer and poorly nourished children are more likely to be sick, inattentive and score lower on achievement tests.
The Summer Food Service Program of the U.S. Department of Agriculture was launched in 1968 to address these problems by providing healthy meals from June to August so students in low-income areas are ready to learn when school begins in the fall.
However, the program, which reimburses sponsors for providing breakfast, lunch and snacks in impoverished neighborhoods, isn't reaching nearly as many youngsters as it could.
In fact, only one in six eligible students — those who get subsidized school lunches — participated in a summer meal program in July 2009, according to the Food Research and Action Center. That's about 16 percent of eligible youngsters, down from roughly 21 percent who participated in 2001.
The decline is even more startling, considering that participation in the federal school lunch and breakfast programs have been growing steadily throughout the recession, and that enrollment in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, otherwise known as food stamps, has reached a record 40 million, or 1 in 8 Americans.
"As demand is growing in all these programs, the summer nutrition program is actually contracting," said Crystal FitzSimons, the director of school programs at the Food Research and Action Center. "So it's not meeting the demand the way it was designed to."
The main problem is a lack of sponsors willing to serve the meals, said USDA spokeswoman Jean Daniel. Many organizations have complained that the program involves too much administrative red tape. Nevertheless, Catholic Charities of Chicago has set a goal of serving 200,000 meals this year, twice as much as last year.
Summer feeding sites can only be located in communities where at least half of school-age students qualify for free or reduced-cost school meals. Typical sites are schools, religious facilities, food banks, community centers or parks.
Each weekday at the gleaming new $33 million Deanwood Community Center & Library in Northeast Washington, D.C., 120 youngsters ages 3 to 18 gather for breakfast and lunch. On a typical morning, they enjoy cereal, fruit, milk and a bagel with butter and jelly. For lunch, it's a sandwich, vegetable, fruit juice and milk.
With its compact geography, ample public transportation and large concentrations of poverty, D.C. has the best summer meal program in the nation, serving nearly 80 percent of children who get subsidized school lunches, according to a recent study by food center. Among states, New Mexico's summer meal programs posted the highest rate, serving 34 percent of subsidized meal recipients. They were followed by Nevada at 31 percent and New York and Delaware at 30 percent and 29 percent, respectively.
Oklahoma and Mississippi serve the lowest percentage of subsidized-meal recipients at 5 percent, followed by Kansas at 6.4 percent, Louisiana at 6.7 percent and Colorado at 6.9 percent.
Transportation poses the biggest problems for these and other states with large rural populations because children can't walk to a facility for meals, said Daniel of the USDA. "Where public transportation is lacking, if you can't bring kids together in one site, how do you get the meals to them?"
In Arkansas, only 10.5 percent of subsidized-meal recipients are in a summer meal program, according to the USDA. In a pilot effort to feed more needy youngsters, the department will reimburse an extra 50 cents per meal to Arkansas agencies that run their summer lunch program for more than 40 days. Sponsors in Mississippi will get a similar incentive for providing recreational activities along with their meals.
Congress is now debating reauthorization of the Child Nutrition Act, which funds several USDA programs, including the summer meal and school lunch and breakfast programs. The Obama administration, which has pledged to end child hunger by 2015, has requested an additional $1 billion a year over 10 years for the programs, beginning in 2011.
The extra funding would expand program participation, increase reimbursement rates, enhance meal quality and provide extra meals for children in day care longer than eight hours, among other things.
House Democrats are considering a proposal for nearly $8 billion over 10 years, while Senate Democrats have offered a $4.5 billion package.
FitzSimons calls the Senate proposal a "good start," but favors the House proposal, HR 5504, saying, "This is a small price to pay to improve children's health and educational achievement."
Congressional Republicans have expressed concern about the cost of both measures. In a recent hearing on the House bill, Rep. John Kline, R-Minn., said "We can modernize this program without further bankrupting our nation."
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