With five children, no job and an ill family member, Lisa Rheams relies heavily on the national free or reduced-price lunch program for her sons’ meals during the school year. But when summer comes, Rheams has to work five breakfasts and lunches into her budget. Or she did, until four of her elementary-school-aged sons started attending summer camp at River City Youth Foundation in East Austin, where they’re fed free meals. “When they come home now, they’re telling me about their day instead of telling me that they’re hungry,” she says.
Rheams’ sons are fed for free between June and August through the summer food service program, a federally funded program administered by the U.S. Department of Agriculture that reimburses school districts, regional food banks, nonprofit organizations and summer camps for serving healthy meals to children. Yet they are increasingly the exception in a state with far too many hungry children.
The summer food service program is a lifeline for the one in four Texas children at risk for hunger. Texas’ participation in the summer food program is dismally low, however — fewer than 20 percent of the 2.5 million low-income children who benefit from free and reduced-price lunches during the school year are also fed during the summer, according to the Texas Department of Agriculture, which administers the state program. According to a Food and Research Action Center study, Texas ranks eighth from the bottom nationally in summer food program participation. In 2008, the last year where complete data is available, there were 48 summer feeding sites for every 100 school lunch programs. The Department of Agriculture received more than $41 million that year to reimburse the summer feeding sites, which served more than 17 million meals across the state.
Under a 1993 state mandate, school districts with at least 60 percent of their students eligible for free or reduced-price lunches are required to serve meals during the summer, with the option to waive out under various circumstances. But financial obstacles, lack of awareness among school districts and limited transportation to get kids to feeding centers have combined to limit usage of the program.
“We need to make these sites really accessible, and right now we just don’t have enough,” says Jeremy Everett, director of the Texas Hunger Initiative at Baylor University.
Child hunger advocates say lack of awareness among school districts is the biggest reason for Texas’ low participation. According to the nonpartisan Center for Public Policy Priorities, just a third of Texas school districts sponsored the summer food program in 2008. Under Agriculture Department guidelines, schools can operate their cafeterias during the summer as if school was still in session and avoid the lengthy paperwork required to apply as a sponsor. (Nonprofits and other sponsors have to go through a tedious application process.) Districts, advocates say, simply don’t know they are able to do that, and parents don’t know their schools could continue serving meals in the summer. “We’re making announcements and reaching out, but people are not aware the program exists,” said Kathy Golson, deputy assistant commissioner for the Agriculture Department's food and nutrition division.
While participation is highest in large metropolitan areas like Harris, Dallas and Travis counties, it wanes in rural Texas. Forty-three counties that have enough eligible students to enroll in the program, most in west Texas or the Panhandle, didn’t have a single feeding sponsor last summer. High start-up costs and low federal reimbursement rates make it hard for small districts to establish the program and simply break even. Billy Collins, superintendent of the Schleicher County Independent School District in Eldorado, said the summer program creates budgetary uncertainties, so the district opted out of participating this year. Neighboring counties like Sutton, Crockett and Terrell also don’t have any sponsors. It’s difficult and expensive to fulfill the Agriculture Department’s requirement of hiring and training a full staff to serve and supervise the children, he says.
“Budgeting up front when you don’t know how many [kids] you’re going to have is very difficult,” Collins says.
Transportation continues to be another insurmountable obstacle in both urban and rural areas, despite the number of active feeding sites. Because parents work during the day, children are left home alone and are told not to leave the house. The department requires that sponsors arrange for children to get to the site and keep an eye on them they’re eating. But high transportation costs deter school districts from keeping their bus systems running over the summer, and nonprofit organizations can’t find enough volunteers to drive buses or vans. “The kids are virtually stranded,” Everett says.
Central Dallas Ministries in North Texas implemented mobile feeding sites last summer. Volunteers drove meals to low-income neighborhoods and apartment complexes and delivered them directly to the children. Sonia White, the organization’s nutrition director, says last year’s pilot program served approximately 15,000 meals to 1,800 children in July and August, doubling their participation from the previous summer. Department officials say they're watching that effort as a possible model for other communities.
Despite the low participation, lawmakers, Agriculture Department officials and advocates have tried unsuccessfully to strengthen the program. During the last legislative session, state Sen. Eddie Lucio Jr., D-Brownsville, authored a bill that would have bolstered participation and extended the number of summer serving days. Under Senate Bill 867, a school district with at least 50 percent of its students eligible for the free or reduced-price lunch program would have been eligible to serve summer meals and would have been required to serve food for 30 consecutive weekdays. The bill was passed in the Senate but failed in the House. Lucio said he plans to reintroduce a similar bill next session.
Between 1999 and 2004, the state helped subsidize the summer food service program, offering feeding sites supplemental funds on a per-meal basis. That kind of help today would provide more incentive for new and returning sites, says Celia Hagert, a policy analyst at the Center for Public Policy Priorities. But with a projected budget shortfall of as much as $18 billion next year, chances are slim of getting that money restored. At the federal level, the U.S. Senate Agriculture Committee’s Child Nutrition Reauthorization Bill, which will soon hit the Senate floor for debate, would increase nonprofit participation and provide more summer food grant opportunities, benefiting programs here in Texas.
Getting the program to work will require sustained cooperation between advocates and the state and federal government, Hagert says. “We’ve struggled and limped along for years,” she says. “If everybody puts their heads together, we could, over the next five years or so, get it back on stable footing and growing.”