USDA pushes to increase summer meal programs for children

March 28–PEORIA — The same federal program that subsidizes free and reduced-priced meals for children during the school year also funds meals for school-age children during the summer.

But the numbers in central Illinois show many aren’t taking advantage of the program.

While almost 30,000 Tri-County Area students were eligible for the school meals program last year, the average daily participation for the 2013 summer meals program totaled 453 in Peoria, Tazewell and Woodford counties.

The program is needed as “desperately” in the summer as it is during the school year, says Marjorie LaFont, who operated a summer meals program until she retired from the University of Illinois Cooperative Extension Service in 2010.

“Our food pantries really saw a difference the past two summers when kids were out of school and there were no summer programs to feed them,” LaFont says. “We really saw an increase in families needing food for kids, particularly in Peoria.”

The U.S. Department of Agriculture also noticed Illinois’ — particularly Peoria’s — low participation rates in the Summer Food Service Program. Participation rates are low throughout the country, according to USDA official Kevin Concannon, but Illinois ranks 39th of the 50 states, with a participation rate of 11.2 percent. And the Tri-County Area, with a summer participation rate of 1.6 percent, ranks low in one of the lowest-ranked states.

That’s why the USDA, in partnership with the Illinois State Board of Education, is intensifying efforts to increase the number of summer meals programs available in Illinois, particularly in the Tri-County Area.

The USDA reimburses schools and other agencies for the feeding programs, while the state board of education administers the program for the federal government. Some agencies continue to provide free summer meals to children enrolled in their summer programs. Others are open-site programs, providing meals to all children in areas where at least 50 percent of the children are eligible for free or reduced-price meals through the National School Lunch program.

“Summer is the time of year children anywhere in the United States are most likely to go hungry,” Concannon says. “The major reason is school is out.”

But food stamps, or the Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program (SNAP), have been cut just as fewer and fewer schools offer summer school classes, Concannon says, creating additional hardships for low-income parents.

- The USDA and ISBE are looking for social service agencies, church groups, service clubs, even public libraries, willing to sponsor summer meals programs.

“There are gaps in these three counties and now is the time for organizations to consider sponsoring programs,” Concannon says.

The state board also has asked the Illinois Coalition for Community Services, a Springfield-based agency, to recruit Tri-County Area agencies for the program. The Boys and Girls Club of Greater Peoria is one of the agencies working with the ICCS.

But representatives of agencies who have operated summer meals programs in the past say it’s tough to make it work. Reimbursement rates are low and reimbursements are cut if meals don’t meet federal nutritional requirements.

LaFont says her old program served 500 cold lunches a day. Changes in the feeding program’s rules and staffing cuts forced the extension service to stop operating the program in Peoria and Tazewell counties in 2011.

“It’ a wonderful program, but you’ve got to be a super manager to make it work.”

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