WASHINGTON — Poor children who get free or discounted lunches at school are entitled to get two free meals daily during the summer, but fewer than one in four do so nationwide. In some states, it's fewer than one in 10.
In Utah, more than 105,800 low-income students received free or reduced-price school lunches in 1999. But only about 29,100, or 27.5 percent, participated in Summer Nutrition programs, Utahns Against Hunger reported.
In other words, nearly 77,000 children are at risk of going hungry during the summer.
"We are seeing more and more families with children in our food pantry," Tim Schultz, pantry director of Crossroads Urban Center, said in a prepared statement. "To help these families, increasing the reach of the summer food program should be a priority in every community."
Nationally, there aren't enough day camps, activity centers, schools, churches and other sites authorized to offer the meals, and federal rules make it too difficult for organizations in some areas to qualify for the program, nutrition advocates said Thursday.
Utah has more than 120 summer food program sites statewide, Utahns Against Hunger reported. Salt Lake City School District is home to 19 sites, but a district coordinator delivers to 33 sites within the county.
About half of the 27,000 students in the Salt Lake District receive free or discounted school lunch, said Diana Albiston, district field supervisor of the summer food program. About 4,500 students receive the free meals in the summer. While low, the number represents a jump from just 2,000 students last year and the first year participation has increased in the past decade.
"It's wonderful," Albiston said Friday of the increase. "But I still know there's a lot of hungry kids
out there who are not getting (served)."
Albiston attributes the increase to a door-to-door advertising campaign and efforts by Utahns Against Hunger to get the word out to needy families.
Utahns Against Hunger and students from the Bennion Center at the University of Utah are looking to establish five more food-service sites, particularly in Logan, Tooele, Cedar City and St. George, interim executive director Susan Soleil said in a prepared statement. The U. students also have arranged for educational events for children receiving food at the Edison Elementary.
About 3.2 million children participated in the federally subsidized summer food program last year out of the 14.9 million who get free or reduced cost lunches at school, according to Agriculture Department data analyzed by the Food Research and Action Center, a private advocacy group.
"States and communities are falling far short of using available resources fully, and many needy children are missing the meals and vital nutrients they need during the summer just as much as they do the rest of the year," said Lynn Parker, a spokeswoman for the group.
Ten states have summer food program participation rates under 10 percent, the largest of which is Texas, where 142,374 youngsters got free meals last summer out of the 1.6 million children in the school-lunch program. Wyoming has the lowest rate, with 5.4 percent of its eligible kids participating.
The District of Columbia had the highest participation rate, at 67.6 percent, followed by Nevada at 44.1 percent and California at 43.6 percent.
"When you look at the children on the school lunch program, common sense tells you that these kids are not eating well in the summer unless they find somewhere to go to eat, because there just isn't anything at home," said Anita Reyes, food acquisition director for the San Antonio Food Bank.
Federal rules inhibit expansion of the summer program in rural and suburban areas because 50 percent of the children fed by an organization must be eligible for subsidized school lunches, says the Food Research and Action Center.
Unless 50 percent are eligible, the group providing the meals gets no USDA reimbursement for any of the children fed. That threshold was raised from 30 percent as a cost-cutting move in the 1980s.
Reimbursements for the summer meals are $1.25 for each breakfast served, $2.18 per lunch or supper and 50 cents per snack.
Seven states — California, Massachusetts, Minnesota, New York, Texas, Vermont and Washington — chip in some of their own money to make up for a cut Congress made in the reimbursements in 1996.
With the low participation rates, many children are winding up in soup lines, said Doug O'Brien, public policy director for America's Second Harvest, a hunger relief program that distributes food to 200 food banks nationwide.
Half of those food banks reported in a 1998 survey that they have "many more" children coming in for food during the summer than at other times of the year.
The San Antonio organization, which serves a 20-county area of south Texas, said only 10 percent of the families it serves participated in the federally subsidized summer nutrition program.
"If you expand the summer food program, you'll drive down demand at feeding programs. We don't believe that kids should be getting food at soup kitchens and church pantries when there's a summer nutrition program," said O'Brien.
USDA officials have been visiting states with the lowest participation in the program to recruit new organizations.
The Texas Legislature this spring passed a law requiring that summer nutrition programs exist in every area of the state where at least 60 percent of the children are eligible for the meals. State officials are especially trying to recruit schools with summer education programs.
Missouri, meanwhile, is requiring that programs be available in areas where 50 percent of the youngsters are eligible.
Contributing: Jennifer Toomer-Cook.