No hungry summer for Philadelphia children

Posted: June 21, 2011

FOR MOST children, summer means no more pencils and no more books; but for millions of low-income kids, summer also means no more meals.

According to a just-released report by the Food Research and Action Center, only 15 percent of eligible children receive federally funded meals during the summer. During the months school was in session in 2009-2010, some 18.6 million children received free or reduced-price lunches through the federally funded National School Lunch Program. But last summer, with school out, only 2.8 million participated in the federally funded Summer Food Service Program or related summer nutrition programs.

This spring, I joined other University of Pennsylvania undergraduates in a problem-solving seminar on summer-nutrition programs for youth in Philadelphia. We reviewed studies, interviewed state and local leaders, visited some community-based food sites and did a little statistical analysis.

First, the good news: Our research indicated that, in Philadelphia, about half of eligible children participate in a federally funded summer nutrition program. That's three times the national rate, double the Pennsylvania rate and better than the rates in most other big cities.

In Pennsylvania, the state Department of Education is primarily responsible for administering federally funded nutrition programs for children. The department and its two main summer-meals partners in Philadelphia, the city Department of Parks and Recreation and the Archdiocese of Philadelphia's

nutrition-development-services unit, deserve praise.

Now the bad news: Although nobody knows for sure how many of the children who don't participate in the state Education Department's summer-food program receive meals and snacks through other means, nobody doubts there are tens of thousands of Philadelphia children who go hungry for all or part of the summer, or that childhood nutrition and healthy eating suffer when school is out.

Food-stamp allotments don't increase during the summer, and most food banks and pantries have no more food in the summer than they have during the school year. (Indeed, many report having less.) With the official start of summer yesterday, now is the time to do whatever can be done to avoid another hungry summer for Philly's kids.

An immediate first step is to increase awareness among schoolchildren and their parents about the existence and exact location of the city's federally funded summer meals sites. To that end, Penn has developed a website (pasummermeals.com) that displays up to 25 of the sites closest to any given address. It also contains information about serving times and types of meals (breakfast, lunch or snack). The state Education Department plans to start up and maintain the site.

Next, it's vital to keep more summer meals sites open. Philadelphia already has about 1,300 summer meals sites, but most close in late July or early August. The state Education Department and its partners are doing what they can to increase coverage throughout the summer, but more must be done. In addition, it would be wise to recruit new sites willing to supply meals in late July and August.

More fundamentally, the way that the federal government administers its summer food programs seems almost calculated to dampen participation rates.

For all the federal rules and regulations, no real consequences follow when summer participation rates in a state drop into single digits (as they did in more than a dozen states last summer).

The U.S. Department of Agriculture runs the program, but isn't to blame - Congress is. The Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010 is replete with laudable goals, including sections calling for increased participation in summer meals programs. But whether Congress will supply the oversight and the funding needed to translate these goals into action remains to be seen.

FINALLY, MY Penn classmates and I hope that state and local policymakers, as well as community and church leaders, foundations and philanthropists, will consider the recommendations in our just-released report on summer nutrition programs in Philadelphia (accessible at foxleadership.upenn.edu).

Let's not take yet another summer vacation from the moral and civic responsibility to combat childhood hunger.

Emma Ellman-Golan is a Penn senior and Fox program fellow working this summer at the Brookings Institution in Washington, D.C.

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