Cuts to summer school programs mean fewer kids have access to healthy meals

Widespread cancellation of summer school classes throughout the state has not only taken away an academic boost for struggling students but has severely limited options for many children who count on school for a meal they might not otherwise get.

More than 80 percent of the more than two million California children who ate subsidized school lunches during the 2009-10 academic year did not eat lunch served through federal summer meal programs in July 2010, according to the most recent data available.

California Food Policy Advocates, a statewide group whose mission is to increase access for low-income residents to nutritious meals, identifies budget cuts to summer school as the main reason so many low-income children have lost access to free, nourishing meals.

In a 2011 report prepared by CFPA, an analysis of data provided by the California Department of Education shows participation in federal summer lunch programs decreased approximately 50 percent from 2002 to 2010. This decline, said CFPA, means that more than 400,000 students who ate a federally-sponsored lunch each day in July 2002 no longer participate in the summer nutrition programs.

In addition, sites serving meals through school-based summer nutrition programs fell by more than half from July 2009 to July 2010, leaving fewer than 4,200 sites statewide.

While CFPA won't release data for the 2011-12 school year for a few weeks, an agency spokeswoman said it is likely that the overall trend will hold, and the vast majority of students who receive free or reduced-price school meals during the academic year will not be served by federal summer nutrition programs.

Part of the problem, however, is that even when there is a summer meal provider in the area, kids - and their parents - don't realize that they qualify for and could eat a free meal, even if they are not enrolled in the program being offered.

Take, for example, Redding's Enterprise Elementary School District, whose food service staff - led by director Denise Ohm - prepares and serves summer meals at seven different sites for non-school programs. Five of the sites are school sites being used for recreation department summer programs; two are at area community halls for two week-long church camps.

All children through 18 years of age are welcome to eat whatever meal is served - either lunch or supper - regardless of whether they are participating in the program.

But that doesn't happen often, said Ohm.

Neighborhood kids rarely come to just have the meal," the food nutrition services director said. "We do our best to get the word out. We advertise through WIC (Women, Infants and Children nutrition program) and the schools, but we just don't get that many from outside the programs."

It's not just in the Redding area where children fail to take advantage of the USDA's National School Lunch Seamless Summer Feeding program, which pays for meals designed to keep them healthy.

At the Tamalpais Union High School District in Marin County, which is hosting summer school for the last time this year, food services director Margan Holloway said she serves an average of 61 meals a day - all to students taking part in the program. Some 458 summer school students qualify for the free and reduced-price meals.

Holloway said, however, that she is aware of larger districts with higher populations of impoverished families that serve many more meals during summer.

Holloway, who is set to take over for Ohm as president of the California School Nutrition Association, said the West Contra Costa Unified School district serves 45,000 meals on average during its almost two-month summer school run.

Vallejo Unified, she said, with 35 summer school days, is serving meals "almost year round."

Interestingly enough, Holloway said in many areas where summer food service is offered, supper meal service is increasing.

"It's interesting to me and shows that, obviously, there's a huge need for it," Holloway said. "I don't know if it's a comment on our parenting skills or the economy."

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