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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Summer meals slipping for kids

Linda Stone Special to The Spokesman-Review

Sandy Sulgrove, the food services supervisor for the Chewelah (Wash.) School District, spent her summer working to get meals to hungry kids. When tightening district budgets threatened to shut the summer meal program down, she kept it going. On some days this summer more than 100 children ate free lunch at the town park – that in a town whose population hovers around 2,300 people.

Still, she said, she knows she didn’t fully meet the need.

While many of us think of summer as a time of bounty, overflowing with fresh fruits and vegetables, for low-income families summer can be a time of deprivation.

For thousands of children in these families, going back to school means a return to at least two solid meals a day.

It doesn’t have to be that way.

The federal Summer Food Program was created to help curb childhood hunger by offering free meals during the dry months of summer. It’s a woefully underutilized program, though. Of the 280,000 Washington children who received free or reduced-price meals during the 2007-’08 school year, only 13 percent received meals during summer 2008. The numbers for this summer are shaping up to be about the same.

The obstacles to serving Summer Food meals are numerous. School districts and other sponsors don’t get enough help – logistical or financial – to keep a program up and running. And they often don’t break even on the cost. Many potential food program sponsors get scared away by the administrative red tape.

Despite those obstacles, there are some real heroes out there. Across the state, 104 school districts, nine cities and parks departments, 25 food banks, churches and other nonprofits, and six tribes negotiated the USDA paperwork needed to provide summer meals to kids. And through their Feed Your Brain partnership, the Discuren Foundation and School’s Out Washington continued their commitment to helping rural communities feed hungry kids while they offer literacy programs.

The Washington state Legislature helped too, by budgeting $70,000 for Meals for Kids startup grants and $100,000 in added funds for meals served.

Still, the pressures of the recession are, paradoxically, eating away at Summer Food programs even as the need is rising. When school districts cut or shorten summer school to trim their budgets, summer meals get cut as well. The same goes for Parks and Recreation programs and nonprofits that host summer meal sites.

In the coming months our elected officials have opportunities to make things easier for summer meal providers and the children they feed.

This fall, the U.S. Congress is scheduled to take up legislation that’s needed to keep Summer Food and other federal child nutrition programs going for another five years. Our representatives have the opportunity to make it easier for schools, churches, community centers and others to host a Summer Food site by reducing unnecessary paperwork and increasing meal reimbursement. They also should lower the threshold for assistance so school districts offer summer meals if 40 percent of their kids are eligible for free or reduced-price meals, rather than the current 50 percent. This change alone would add nearly 300 new eligible sites in Washington.

In our state, we’ll be asking our lawmakers to pitch in by helping communities pool resources to add summer meal sites where they’re needed most and by providing incentives to start and maintain summer programs.

Children shouldn’t have to go hungry any time of the year, but the spike in hunger over the summer is something we shouldn’t tolerate. Not now when the recession is pushing up the child poverty rate in our state. Not ever. By making a greater commitment to the Summer Food Program we can make the summer a little more carefree for kids and parents by taking away the gnawing fear of going hungry.

Linda Stone, of Spokane, is the senior food policy coordinator at the Children’s Alliance, a statewide children’s advocacy organization.
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