The little boy with the bulging pockets caught David Cardinale’s eye.
As the child moved through the lunch line at the Boys and Girls Club of Spokane County, he secretly stashed second helpings – then thirds, then fourths – in his clothing.
“I pulled him aside to talk to him,” recalled Cardinale, executive director of the youth agency. “He finally admitted, ‘We don’t have any food at home, and I wanted to feed my family.’ ”
That boy – and dozens like him – lingered in Cardinale’s mind this week as he met with other regional sponsors of the federal Summer Food Service Program, which aims to keep kids from going hungry in the summer.
This year, Washington is one of seven new states approved to roll out a simplified version of the program that feeds nearly 40,000 kids on an average day in July, the U.S. Department of Agriculture reported.
Idaho, which feeds almost 14,000 kids on a summer day, was among the first participants in a plan that streamlines paperwork and boosts reimbursements in hopes of attracting new food providers.
“It’s a huge impact,” said Cardinale, whose agency will serve some 200 meals and snacks a day between mid-June and late August. “The paperwork scares off a lot of people. Now, it’s a little bit easier.”
And ease is important for a program that tackles one of the nation’s thorniest problems: providing adequate nutrition to children outside the structure and supervision of school. During the year, the federal free- and reduced-price meals program ensures that low-income kids eat well. In Washington, some 37 percent of children are eligible for the help; in Idaho, about 42 percent receive assistance, state statistics showed.
But during the summer, the percentage of children served plummets to 15 and 18 percent, leading school officials to worry about the kids’ well-being. That’s not a great return on a federal program that spends about $263 million nationwide each year, including about $2.2 million in Washington and $2.1 million in Idaho, according to statistics from the Food Research and Action Center, an anti-hunger advocacy group.
“There is a large population that is going without,” said Jody Walker, summer meals coordinator for Spokane Public Schools, which staffs dozens of meal sites across the Inland Northwest. “I think there is a big need out there for some of these little guys.”
Federal officials worry too about figures that showed only 19 children participate in summer food programs for every 100 who eat regular meals during the school year. Research showed that government reporting requirements were keeping schools, nonprofit agencies and others from taking on the responsibility of meal sites.
“A few years ago, it was a nightmare to do summer meals,” said Annie Mader, director of school nutrition programs for the Post Falls School District. “The paperwork involved was awful.”
In 2001, a test project known as “the Lugar pilot” – named for its advocate, U.S. Sen. Richard Lugar – allowed 13 states, including Idaho, to relax accounting and reporting standards. Under the plan, food providers could be reimbursed for the full cost – supplies and staffing – of meals. If actual costs were less than the agreed-upon reimbursement, the providers could keep the extra money and put it toward program improvements.
Organizers contended that existing state application, inspection and monitoring procedures would prevent mismanagement of funds, despite the relaxed standards.
The new plan proved wildly successful, said Lynda Westphal, child nutrition coordinator for the Idaho Department of Education.
Between 2001 and 2004, participation in Idaho programs skyrocketed 122.5 percent, boosting the number of children fed from 6,111 to 13,597. During that same period, Washington’s enrollment increased about 17 percent, from 34,111 kids to 39,827, according to figures from the Food Research and Action Center.
Awareness, outreach and reassurance were keys to Idaho’s increase, Westphal said. Food providers learned that they would be reimbursed for the full price of food and administrative costs, about $2.83 for an average lunch. Parents learned that most sites are open to all children from ages 2 to 17, without question.
“There’s no application, there’s no name taking, nothing,” Westphal said. “If there is an open site in the area, a child can show up and eat.”
Washington food site coordinators are hoping that joining 26 other states offering the simplified federal program will cause a dramatic boost in that state as well. Organizers have encouraged providers in unserved areas to step forward. In Colville, for instance, the NEW Calvary Chapel agreed to serve, said Donna Parsons, summer food service program supervisor for the Child Nutrition Program of the Washington Superintendent of Public Instruction.
“Overall, the goal of the program is not necessarily to add more sponsors or add more sites, but to feed more kids,” Parsons said.
Back at the Boys and Girls Club, director Cardinale couldn’t have agreed more. In the Spokane neighborhood his agency serves, nearly 85 percent of kids are eligible for reduced-price lunches during the school year, he said.
Without access to breakfasts, lunches and hearty snacks – which can double as dinner, Cardinale said – many youngsters would be as desperate as the boy with the full pockets. Cardinale had to tell that child he couldn’t take food home; federal regulations prohibit it.
“They can eat all they want while they’re here,” he said. “That’s why I’m really into getting as many kids fed as possible.”