School's Out. Food's Where?
When summer moves into its hazy days, the school year ends. But hunger doesn't. That's why there's a vacation companion to the standard school meals system, called the Summer Meals program. Last year more than 130,000 New York City kids got federally funded food at schools, community organizations, parks and pools.
The problem, according to Children's Defense Fund/New York, is that the number of city kids participating in the program dropped 15 percent from 2003 to 2004, part of a bigger decline of 42 percent in meals served since 1998. What's more, the 2004 figure represents only a fraction (14 percent for lunch and 7 percent for breakfast) of the kids who get meals during the school year.
CDF/NY suggests that one reason for the low and falling participation rate is the school department's decision to close some summer school sites but not open summer meals sites to make up for the loss. That compounded a problem endemic to food assistance programs: People not knowing they are eligible to eat.
"I think it's a case of it not being a priority," says Donna Lawrence, executive director of CDF/NY, told the Voice. "What we're saying is there are a million children in the city who are eligible for summer meals and every one of them should have access."
That lack of awareness could be countered by publicizing the program, and it seems to be in the city's financial interest to do just that. The federal government pays the city a per meal reimbursement for the food, as well as a tiny administrative fee. By failing to get every eligible kid into the summer food line, CDF/NY says, the city is missing out on $73 million of potential federal aid.
"Everybody is always screaming that we don't get enough money from the feds," says Public Advocate Betsy Gotbaum. Why doesn't the city do more to get the Summer Meals money? "I just don't understand," Gotbaum says. The critique of the Summer Meals program echoes complaints about the way the city handles Food Stamps, especially the Bloomberg administration's decision not to accept a federal waiver that would lift time limits on jobless adults receiving food assistance.
But in this case, there are moves to close the gap between participation and eligibility. The school department has what CDF/NY calls "a multi-faceted marketing plan" and is mapping out meal sites in cooperation with the Housing Authority.
"We are working closely with many groups including the Children's Defense Fund on the upcoming Summer Meals program. We will be reviewing sites with them. In addition, we will be conducting an active marketing campaign to attract as many children as possible to our sites," Kelly Devers, a school department spokeswoman, tells the Voice. "We believe we have enough sites to accommodate everyone and if there is sufficient demand to open additional schools, we will open them to meet the demand."