Nutritious lunches are provided each day in public school, where low-income students are able to receive them for free. But what happens when the school bell rings on the last day of school and those low-income students no longer have that option?
“Each and every year, we face the end of a school year in which
21 million receive free or reduced lunch, but only 2.5 million take advantage of programs in the summer months,” said U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack during a press conference on April 12, encouraging the expansion of the Department of Agriculture’s Summer Food Service Program (SFSP). Vilsack hopes to increase participation in the program by 5 million children in five key states: Rhode Island, Arkansas, California, Colorado and Virginia.
In the past, Cranston had SFSP sites, but in recent years, those sites ceased operation.
As a whole, in October 2012, Cranston had 4,462 students listed as “low-income,” or eligible for free and reduced-price lunch, according to the 2013 Rhode Island Kids Count Factbook. That is 42 percent of the entire student population in Cranston public schools.
Those students will now have the opportunity to access free cold lunches over the summer thanks to Cranston Public Schools and the Salvation Army, two organizations that have stepped up to serve as SFSP sponsors.
According to Steve Carey, nutrition program specialist for the Rhode Island Department of Elementary and Secondary Education that runs SFSP for the state, the availability of sites is based on “area-eligibility,” which means 50 percent of students in the area qualify for free or reduced-price lunch. Areas are typically the surrounding neighborhood of a school or other potential site.
Cranston Public Schools will be serving as enrolled sites, meaning students enrolled in summer activities at the schools, such as the Summer Literacy Program, will have access to meals through SFSP.
Carey stressed that it was important to realize the sites sponsored by Cranston Public Schools (Gladstone Street Middle School, Bain Middle School, Arlington Elementary School, Dutemple Elementary School, Eden Park Elementary School and Edgewood Highlands Elementary School) would only be available to students in the specific programs.
The Salvation Army, however, will be using their mobile canteen to serve to “open sites.” Open sites mean any students under age 18 that come to the site will be given a meal.
Lt. John C. Luby, Providence County coordinator for the Salvation Army, said that they plan on providing meals at two sites beginning July 1 until the last full week of August. The two sites are the Gladstone Street Playground and the Arlington Schoolyard.
Carey explained that these sites are all located in areas where the nearest school has at least 50 percent of students eligible for free or reduced price lunch, or “area eligibility” was established through census data.
“We can use census tract data to identify ‘pockets of poverty’ in communities by comparing specific addresses to census tract information regarding socioeconomic status of that tract,” said Carey.
Final plans are not set in stone, but Luby explained that the Salvation Army would run the sites for roughly 10 weeks and provide cold lunches with milk, a protein, a starch, fruits and a vegetable. They may even provide hot lunches such as hot dogs on certain days.
“With this canteen, it is basically a mobile kitchen. It can feed 300 people an hour,” said Luby.
Providing meals to children in the summer serves as an extension of some of the work the Salvation Army already does with their mobile canteen. They provide meals in downtown Providence, at Roger Williams Park and even at various shelters across the state.
Luby said participating in a program such as SFSP fits right into the Army’s mission to “relieve human suffering.”
“We anticipate 50 or so meals per day at each site,” said Luby, who estimates the Salvation Army will serve 5,000 meals over the course of the summer.
The Food Research Action Center, or FRAC, publishes a yearly report detailing each state’s participation in SFSP. According to FRAC’s report, “Hunger Doesn’t Take A Vacation: Summer Nutrition Status Report 2012,” Rhode Island had 49,127 students participating in free and reduced lunch programs during the 2010-2011 school year; only 6,619 took part in 2011 summer programs.
Rhode Island served 13.5 low-income students per 100 in summer 2011, ranking 28th in the country. For comparison, Washington, D.C. ranked first, serving 73.5 per 100, while Oklahoma ranked 51st, serving only 3.7 per 100.
FRAC data from school year 2011-2012 and summer 2012 will be available in June.
FRAC credits the decline of participation in summer programs to the recession. According to their report, more students have a need for free and reduced-price lunches, but “many state’s budget cuts caused school districts to eliminate or reduce summer programs.” The sites and sponsors could no longer support them even with federal funding.
FRAC also pointed out in their report that by under serving students through SFSP, states are missing out on federal refunds. To put that in perspective, had Rhode Island met the national goal to serve 40 out of 100 low-income students, the federal reimbursement would have been $843,788.
Funding for SFSP comes through federal nutrition programs to state departments of education. Grants can also cover anything from supplies and equipment to transportation and the actual food.
“I don’t think I have fear of folks in Congress saying we need to cut these nutrition programs,” Vilsack said.
In total, Congress appropriated $434,724,000 for SFSP in the FY 2013 budget.
“There is a significant need here. I am not overly concerned about financial consequences. I am concerned about human consequences. This nation cannot afford to lose a single child to poor nutrition. We know there are millions of children who have been missing out of these programs,” said Vilsack.
Formal agreements for Cranston’s latest SFSP sites are not finalized, but students in the area will be made aware of specific hours and availability. According to Carey, most sites have arrangements with the school department to send home flyers with specifics at the end of the school year.