Hungry Kids Not Showing Up for Free Lunches
July 23, 2012 | WMFE - For many students in Florida, summer vacation means finally getting out of the classroom and away from tests and homework. For others, the summer months could also mean trying to figure out where their next meal will come from. Research shows that during the summer most students forget some of what they've learned over the school year. It's called the summer slide. But for low-income students, that slide is often compounded by a food crisis. A new state program is aimed at giving disadvantaged students an educational boost by providing something as simple and essential as a free meal. But, many are not taking advantage of the program and state officials are not sure why.
Summer Hunger is something school districts around the state have been working to combat. During the school year more than 1.6 million Florida children participate in the federal free and reduced price school lunch program. During the summer, free food sites are spread across the state but only about 14% of students who need food show up.
Darcy Atkins, who helps coordinate the summer food program at Apalachee Elementary School in Leon County. Atkins says she sees maybe about 100 kids on a good day.
“I don’t know how to get them here. I don’t know if it’s a matter of transportation, or of pride. I’m just not sure how to get them here.” Atkins said. “We put up fliers, put it up on our website. We do all we can to let the community know we’re an open site.”
Summer food programs around the nation are under-used, according to a report from the Food Research and Action Center. The Federal government continues to give money to schools and organizations that provide the summer meals. But because so few students show up, Florida is leaving about $20 million dollars in federal support for the program on the table.
Signey Anderson is program analyst for the Food Research and Action Center. She says many more kids are eligible for the meals.
“There’s a huge gap between the number of kids that qualify for free and reduced lunch during the school year, and those that are accessing free meals during the summer time.” Anderson said.
She said part of the problem confronting states is funding. Shrinking budgets have led to cuts in services like the summer food program.
Other problems include site locations, being in local churches or YMCA’s, instead of schools.
The lack of access to food for some low-income students compounds an already fragile situation. Research shows that over the summer, most students have lost about a month’s worth of learning by the time they report back to school in the fall. This problem is worse for low-income students, and Anderson says, it’s even worse for those that go hungry.
“We think there’s a huge connection there between the learning gap and hunger.” Anderson said. “If you can’t sit down and concentrate because you’re hungry, you aren’t going to do very well in school or on tests.”
Kids are really aware of this. Fifth-grader Kenneth Walker is in the Apalachee Elementary summer program. He says whether the adults know it or not, he and his peers can always spot those who are hungry.
“It makes you feel a little bad, because, they’re always here for lunch and they’re always so happy. They never complain about the food, they just eat it, whatever it is, no matter what.”
There are more than 3,000 summer food sites throughout Florida, including 600 in Miami and 400 in Orlando. Orange, Polk and Osceola County Public Schools have even created mobile food units that travel to rural areas to reach hungry students.
The Florida Department of Agriculture runs Florida’s school food programs. It’s trying to raise awareness by partnering with the United Way’s 2-1-1 social service number to get needy families in contact with the sites. The free summer meals are just one small way local groups and communities are fighting the summer learning slide. But the summer food programs continue to be under-used and over-looked.