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Q-and-A: Crystal FitzSimons of the Food Research and Action Center on the Summer Food Service Program

School will soon be out for the summer, leaving many children without free or reduced-price meals they depend on for adequate nutrition. Families often turn to summer food programs for help. I interviewed Crystal FitzSimons, director of school and out-of-school time programs for the nonprofit Food Research and Action Center, about the success of the Agriculture Department’s Summer Food Service Program and challenges it faces during uncertain economic times.

How widespread are summer nutrition programs?

Nationally, 2.8 million low-income children participated in the summer nutrition programs in July 2010, [according to the] most recent published data. FRAC looks at the number of low-income children who receive free or reduced-price lunch during the regular school year as an indicator of the need for summer meals. Only 15 children for every 100 low-income children who relied on school lunch during the school year had access to meals through the summer nutrition programs.

The summer nutrition programs are present in every state, but there is tremendous variation in state participation. The District of Columbia serves the most needy children, feeding 80 children for every 100 low-income children who participate in school lunch during the school year; Oklahoma serves the fewest, feeding only four low-income children for every 100 who participate in school lunch during the school year.

Is demand and participation increasing or decreasing?

Demand certainly is increasing for these programs. The number of low-income children who participated in school lunch during the school year grew by 2.6 million from school year 2005-2006 to school year 2009-2010, because of the increase in need caused by the recession. At the same time, budget cuts in many states caused school districts to eliminate or reduce their summer programs. The decrease in programs where food can be served makes it more difficult for the summer nutrition programs to respond to the increased need. As a result, even though summer nutrition participation dropped by about 40,000 children from the summer of 2006 to 2011, the program went from serving 1 in 6 low-income children who participated in school lunch in 2006 to 1 in 7 in 2010, because of the increase in need.

With tight state and school-district budgets, how can participation be increased in 2012?

Efforts at the federal, state and local levels and within the public and private sectors must be redoubled in order to rebuild the summer nutrition programs so that nutritious summer meals are getting to the children who need them. The U.S. Department of Agriculture is helping to lead the charge by organizing the National Summer Food Service Program Awareness Week. It also is important for nonprofits and schools to embrace new provisions included in the 2010 child-nutrition reauthorization law — the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act — that support summer food expansion and outreach efforts.

At the state level, some state agencies, such as the Arizona Department of Education, have taken aggressive steps to grow the program, recruiting more sponsors and sites and conducting outreach to families. And, finally, even if they scale back summer school, schools must recommit to meeting the nutritional needs of their students during the summer.

Is there research on the impact of these types of programs?

Despite the popular image that summer is a time when children play and stay active, recent studies show that this often is not the case. Many children are less active and eat lower-quality meals than they would if they had access to safe, recreational programs and the summer nutrition programs. Also, hunger becomes more acute during the summer months. USDA research shows food-insecurity rates increase for households with children in the summer, and the increase is even greater for states with low summer nutrition participation.