EAST ORANGE, N.J. — Sweaty after a long, hot day spent playing in the park, more than a dozen children stopped in their tracks and jockeyed for a spot in line outside a recreation center on a recent June evening. They rubbed on hand sanitizer, then walked up to a concession stand window and grabbed a tray of food: barbecue chicken sliders, apple slices, baby carrots and a half pint of 1 percent lowfat milk.
Dinner was served.
"Are you hungry?" Brigita Asiedu, 35, asked her daughter Nhyira, 9, as she cozied up to her meal in the cool shade of the playground equipment.
This scene unfolds five days a week at parks throughout the New Jersey community of East Orange, about 20 miles west of New York City, and at almost 49,000 sites across all 50 states and Washington, D.C., where federally funded summer meal programs are available at no cost to participants.
But for every Nhyira who gets at least one free meal a day during the summer and who might otherwise go hungry, an estimated six children who should be getting that same meal are not being fed for a variety of reasons.
Despite best efforts by officials and hunger advocacy groups, it's a problem that has worsened in most states.
In a new report released Wednesday by the Food Research and Action Center, a Washington-based nonprofit focused on eliminating poverty-related hunger, last summer was the third consecutive year in which participation in the nation's federal summer nutrition programs fell — reversing gains made from 2012 to 2015 and underscoring the difficulties of closing the widening summer meal gap.
On an average weekday in July 2018, the National School Lunch Program and the Summer Food Service Program served a combined 2.9 million children, down 5.7 percent or 171,000 children from July 2017, the report says.
Across the country, some communities — even those with meager resources and financial means — are doing what they can to ensure children aren't only eating but eating properly. In East Orange, which has one of the highest poverty rates in New Jersey and where about 70 percent of students qualify for free or reduced-price meals during the school year, sites are offering dinner for the second consecutive summer as a way to capture more participants.
The hurdles of getting additional children fed in East Orange, a compact and urban city, also differs from other places grappling with their own unique challenges.
In Humboldt County, California, a food bank known as Food for People has partnered with the county transit authority and UPS to deliver meals prepared by senior center volunteers to its 18 summer meal sites throughout the county — an area roughly three times the size of Rhode Island.
Carly Robbins, Food for People's development director, said between 500 to 600 children benefit from the arrangement in the county where 60 percent of students enrolled in county schools are eligible for free or reduced-price meals.
"We have a lot of road to cover," Robbins said, "and our total mileage just for the children's lunch program is over 500 miles" per week. She added that additional grants and donations help shoulder the costs.
The drop-off in summer meal engagement nationwide becomes clear when comparing it to the school year, when about 20 million students are fed free or reduced-price lunches across the country, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. For every 100 low-income children who received a school lunch in the 2017-18 school year, only 14 children received a summer lunch in July 2018, down from 15 children in July 2017.
The Food Research and Action Center's report, which analyzes USDA data, focuses on July because the months in which the school year ends and when classes return vary by each state and school district.
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To be clear, researchers say, the number of children participating in a summer nutrition program, whether it's lunch or dinner, isn't down during the summer because more families are able to afford food on their own — rather, children aren't able to access these free meals as easily as they would during the school year. Children may not have transportation to get to the meal sites or communities are unable to find enough sponsors or the space to host children during the summer.
"There is a cost, but we have a choice in how we spend our money in this country," said Crystal FitzSimons, a co-author of the Food Research and Action Center's annual summer nutrition status report. "It's a sad commentary on the fact that we are not providing kids what they need during the summer."
In general, summer nutrition programs are administered by each state and operated in communities where at least 50 percent of children qualify for free or reduced-price meals during the school year. School districts, local governments, faith-based organizations and nonprofits are among the sponsors, and they get reimbursed per meal by the USDA.
Any child 18 and younger can go to a site and eat at no cost. For some of them, it is the only meal they will have that day, and for others, it may be the most nutritious meal — indicative of the problem of food insecurity in the United States, advocacy groups say.
In fiscal year 2018, the USDA's Summer Food Service Program served more than 150 million meals and snacks at a cost of $484 million. But officials say participation is still woefully inadequate — there's no cap on the number of meals that sponsors can get reimbursed for — and some states still struggle to feed as many children as they should be during the summer.
The Food Research and Action Center's report found that as many as 14 states only provided summer lunch in July 2018 to fewer than one child for every 10 children who participated in free or reduced-price school year lunch, with Oklahoma, Louisiana, Nebraska, Texas and Nevada among the states with the largest disparities.
Thirty-four states saw their total number of summer lunch participants drop in July 2018 from July 2017.
To reach more children, some communities have turned to mobile delivery to provide food in centralized neighborhoods where children gather, such as parks and libraries.
In New York City, food trucks serve meals at playgrounds in Manhattan and Queens.
The parks and recreation department in Starkville, Mississippi, has a partnership with Mississippi State University in which charter buses pick up children from set locations and bring them to meal sites.
The Food Research and Action Center wants states to raise the bar by getting at least 40 children to have a summer meal for every 100 children participating in school year lunch, particularly as Congress this year weighs the reauthorization of the Child Nutrition Act, which was first signed under President Lyndon B. Johnson in 1966 and set nutrition standards for school meals.
Among the center's suggestions to get more children fed:
Lowering a community's site eligibility threshold to at least 40 percent of students who qualify for free or reduced-price lunch during the school year from the current 50 percent or more.
Allowing all summer meal sites to serve breakfast, lunch and dinner (currently, most sites are only permitted to serve two meals).
Increasing funding for transportation grants, which would most benefit rural communities.
Increasing funding during the summer for the Electronic Benefit Transfer program so that children have an alternative if they can't get to a summer meal site.
Last month, Sens. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., and Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, introduced a bipartisan bill — the Summer Meals Act of 2019 — that would address many of those suggestions and if passed, it would be incorporated into the Child Nutrition Act reauthorization. There is also a companion House bill.
"It's definitely a moral issue," FitzSimons said. "We should be making sure that all the kids in this country have the food they need to eat, to grow, to be strong and to be healthy."
The USDA last December rolled back national school nutrition standards following efforts under the Obama administration to provide school meals with less salt and more whole grains as a way to combat childhood obesity. In a statement, the USDA said "nutritious meals" are being provided by state partners during the summer who are "at the forefront of innovation for the nutrition assistance programs, and we support them as they continue developing better ways to serve our children."
Some states are making strides.
Last year, New Jersey passed legislation requiring all higher-poverty school districts where at least half the students get free or reduced-price meals to have a summer meal program.
It’s a sad commentary on the fact that we are not providing kids what they need during the summer."
Beginning in 2020, all state public schools, including charter schools, will have to comply with either sponsoring a summer meals program or providing space for another sponsor to operate a program.
The state is anticipating huge growth after 127 school districts were identified as needing to comply this year and another 100 school districts next year, said Nancy Parello, a spokeswoman for Hunger Free New Jersey, a nonprofit focused on fighting hunger.
School districts last year were able to seek a waiver if they needed time to figure out the logistics, such as hiring staff, security and locating the appropriate space.
"There's room to grow. We're still only serving 26 percent of the kids who get served during the school year," Adele LaTourette, the director of Hunger Free New Jersey, said of participation last summer. "Think of the number of kids who are being missed."
Officials in East Orange recognize that many families are just getting by, and even something as simple as free lunch or dinner during the summer can be a blessing. The city, with a population of 65,000, is a pocket of poverty in the state, and its main drag offers a range of fast-food options and corner delis selling cheap candies and sodas.
Summer meals are a better alternative "instead of children going to a corner store to buy unhealthy snacks," said Rene Muhammad, the city's director of recreation and cultural affairs, who is also trying to curb childhood obesity.
During the school year, Asideu knows her daughter, Nhyira, has access to food. But the summer months were precarious until she learned her local recreation center also provided meals.
Asideu emigrated from Ghana in 2011 after winning a visa lottery. She and Nhyira, then-3 months old, settled in East Orange, where Asiedu found a job as a home health aide.
"At first, I think, 'This is the land of opportunity,'" she said.
But work dried up, and in her desperate moments when she was unemployed, she would go to the grocery store and help shoppers push their carts in exchange for money. She also accepted leftovers from neighbors, but made sure Nhyira always ate first.
She said she can remember walking by the recreation center for the first time a few years ago as food was being handed out to the children.
"That was amazing," Asideu said. "I was like, 'Thank you so much. Do I have to pay something?' They said, 'No, it's for free.' I was 100 percent amazed."
Last year, she found a new job working as an environmental services aide at a hospital. But money remains tight, she said, and as she watched her daughter play with her friends and eat their dinners last month, a sense of relief washed over her.
"I'm so blessed we have this," she said.
Erik Ortiz is a staff writer for NBC News focusing on racial injustice and social inequality.