WASHINGTON — Hungry children looking for a free meal this summer may not be able to find one.
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States and cities have cut funding for summer meal programs as need has skyrocketed, according to a new report from an anti-hunger group that tracked the program in 2009. Budget woes that have left many families hungry are also affecting local governments that find themselves without the needed dollars to feed children while they are out of school.
"Low-income children across the country clearly bore the brunt of budget cuts," said Jim Weill, president of the Food Research and Action Center, which compiled the report released Tuesday.
Summer nutrition programs aim to feed children who get most of their nutrition — or sometimes their only real meal of the day — at school. The food research group measures the effectiveness of those summer programs by comparing the number of low-income children receiving meals during the summer with those receiving free and reduced-price school meals during the school year.
When school ends, so do free meals
The group's data, collected from the Agriculture Department and a survey of state child nutrition officials, show that during the summer of 2009, only 16 percent of students who ate free or reduced-cost lunches during the school year were fed when school was out. The figure was 17 percent in the summer of 2008 and 21 percent in 2001.
California is one of the biggest losers, the group says. The state, in the midst of a budget crisis, had 78,000 fewer children participating in summer nutrition programs in 2009, a 13 percent drop from the previous year. The group says the decrease was mostly due to the closure of many school districts' summer school programs.
Other states with big losses in participation included Louisiana, South Carolina, Kentucky, Hawaii and Utah.
Money for summer programs often gets lost as lawmakers and government officials scramble to pay for meals during the school year. The food research group is pushing Congress to pay more attention to the summer meals as they consider a wide-ranging nutrition bill designed to improve school feeding programs. They are also urging states to increase participation rates in order to qualify for more federal funds.
The report isn't all bad news.
Reversing the trend, West Virginia's participation grew by 24 percent last year after the state added new sites for distribution and recruited religious organizations to serve summer meals. The District of Columbia also did well, serving meals to four out of five eligible children.
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