Washington Post. July 12, 2008: In Search of Young Mouths To Feed In Summer

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By Daniel de Vise
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, July 12, 2008; A01

Montgomery County officials dispatch a school bus daily to roam a Silver Spring neighborhood with an unlikely task: find children interested in going to school, in midsummer, for the food.

Children from low-income homes are entitled to federally subsidized meals year-round. Yet the free or reduced-price meals reach fewer than one in five eligible children nationwide during the summer break. The task of getting food to kids falls to a patchwork of schools and community groups with summer programs, a network that cannot match the scope of what’s available during the school year. Millions of children pass July and August malnourished and idle, conditions that promote obesity and widen the well-documented learning gap between haves and have-nots.

Recent initiatives in Montgomery, the District and elsewhere in the region are part of a national movement to mend this inequity. Bologna sandwiches, chocolate milk, seasonal fresh fruit and the like are shipped by the refrigerated truckload to more than 30,000 schools, community centers and churches nationwide throughout the summer. The eventual goal is for disadvantaged children to eat as well when school’s out as they do when school’s in.

“It’s staggering when we look at what really exists for kids at the margins during the summer,” said Ron Fairchild, executive director of the Center for Summer Learning at Johns Hopkins University.

Fairchild views inadequate nutrition as the key to the academic phenomenon known as the “summer slide.” Poor children fall further behind every year, and most of the loss comes in summer, when the great equalizer of public education is neutralized and socioeconomic differences become more telling. By the end of elementary school, researchers have found, poor children trail middle-income children by at least two grade levels.

Children in the District and its suburbs eat better than most. Last summer, more than 1.5 million free meals were served to 30,000 children at 404 sites, in a rapidly expanding program that reaches almost as many children as are served during the academic year. Like some other large cities, experts say, the District has such concentrated areas of poverty that it is relatively easy for agencies to locate and serve large numbers of families. The summer food programs operate at schools, community centers, churches and other facilities.

Montgomery will serve an estimated 12,124 children this summer, compared with 9,089 last summer, in what might be the strongest of the area’s suburban summer meals programs, although the county is far from serving all 36,000 students eligible for subsidized meals.

A report last year by the Food Research and Action Center ranked the District ahead of all states for the extent of its summer nutrition programs, based on 2006 data, with Maryland ranked 12th and Virginia 16th among the states. According to the report, D.C. programs reached 86 percent of those served during the school year; Maryland’s programs, 24 percent; and Virginia’s, 20 percent. Nationally, it was 18 percent.

“The drop-off is hugely larger than it should be,” said Jim Weill, president of the D.C.-based advocacy group.

Any organization within reach of low-income families can offer subsidized meals. But state and local governments must make a more concerted effort, advocates say, to expand the federal programs beyond a handful of summer schools and youth groups. Administrators of summer camps, activity centers and churches often don’t know about potential subsidies or are put off by the paperwork needed to procure them. Through a law enacted in December, the federal government cut red tape for its summer food program for every state.

D.C. officials have doubled their summer nutrition program this decade with a massive outreach program that targeted operators of summer programs and the families for which the meals are intended.

“We would go into alleys and hand out fliers about the program,” said John Stokes, a spokesman for the Department of Parks and Recreation. “Any way we could get the information into the hands of constituents, that’s what we did.”

The program provided free breakfasts, lunches and snacks daily to Christopher Feaster, 13, the past three summers. It reached him through Higher Achievement, which serves middle-grade children after school and in summer at Stuart-Hobson Middle School in Northeast, among other locations.

“They were a godsend to me as a single parent,” said Nkechi Feast er, who has spent parts of her son’s childhood in a shelter and parts in transitional housing.

The Eiskants of Silver Spring have been regulars at Georgian Forest Elementary School, which opened its doors June 16 as part of an expanded summer lunch effort in Montgomery. The school is the county’s first to offer subsidized meals to every neighborhood child who qualifies. Previously, only children attending summer programs were fed.

“It’s sticker shock at the grocery store for everybody,” said Kelley Eiskant, mother of three boys. “Knowing we can come here and have a free meal, it’s been a highlight of our summer.”

Georgian Forest will be open weekdays from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. through Aug. 15, serving any of the approximately 1,600 children who attend John F. Kennedy High School or its four feeder schools, including Georgian Forest, and qualify for meal subsidies by virtue of family income.

One morning late last month, children ran around in the air-conditioned halls, some clutching federally subsidized plums. “We usually hang out on the playground, play dodge ball,” said Daniel Eiskant, 11. “I like the food and the chocolate milk.”

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