Nightly News   |  August 18, 2013

Finding and feeding hungry kids is a difficult task

Students, who are eligible for free and reduced lunches during the school year, also have access to that food during the summer. The problem is making sure they get it. NBC’s Rehema Ellis reports.

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>>> we're back tonight with a program that provides subsidized meals to tense of millions of children in this country, at least that's what happens in the school year. in summertime, that is just a fraction of that number because it's much harder to get the meals to those who need them. our report is part of the nbc news project "in plain sight," focusing on poverty in america, supported by the ford foundation . here is nbc 's rehema ellis.

>> reporter: in santa rosa southwest community park, children don't just line up for lunch, they race to get it. and it's free. it's an unsettling truth in the midst of california's wine country charm. during the school year, nearly half of the children in sonoma county qualify for free or reduced-priced lunches. for elie silva, a single mother of three who lost her full-time job, feeding her kids in the summer has been challenging.

>> we only have two meals. we would skip lunch.

>> reporter: now, she drives them 12 miles to the park, where hundreds of free lunches are served. getting the meals to the kids entitled to them is a massive effort in communities all across the country, working with school districts and food banks , non-profit organizations and lots of volunteers. even when schools close, the main district kitchen in santa rosa stays open. it's a huge operation, cooking, packaging, and getting the meals to about 3,000 people every day. but that's just a fraction of those in need. across america, the summer food gap is startling. during the school year about 21 million students receive free or reduced-priced lunches. over the summer, that number drops dramatically, even though they are all still eligible.

>> really focused on trying to shrink that gap.

>> reporter: it's major concern for secretary of agriculture tom vilsa vilsack, the man in charge of the school lunch program .

>> part of the challenge for the summer feeding program is we have to figure out where the kids are and oftentimes, we have to encourage kids to come to where the meals are being given.

>> reporter: some places are getting creative n rural areas, school buses become mobile cafeterias over the summer, driving long distances to deliver what, for many children is their only reliable meal of the day.

>> that was good.

>> reporter: some of the poorest neighborhoods in chicago, a food bank on wheels brings free meals and fun. a national challenge. how is it? is it thumbs up? feeding kids in the summer so that they are better prepared to learn as school starts again. rehema ellis, nbc news, santa rosa , california.