Summer Hunger: Advocates Push for Changes to Child Nutrition Programs

Photo credit: Carroll County Public Schools

About four of five Maryland school children who receive free and reduced price lunches during the school year may be going hungry this summer.

The state, like many others, struggles to feed lower income Maryland children through summertime meal programs. In July 2018, about 65,425 low-income kids received a summer meal on an average day, about 22.4 percent of the number that receive a free or low-price lunch during the school year, according to a new report from the Food Research & Action Center (FRAC), a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit that advocates for policies and public-private partnerships to address hunger and undernutrition in the U.S.

“Low-income children miss out on more than just food when summer meals are not available to them. Many summer meal sites offer education and enrichment programming, which, combined with meals, helps reduce food insecurity and summer learning loss for children,” said Jim Weill, president of FRAC.

Even so, Maryland is performing better than much of the nation. The state increased participation since 2017 and served one child during the summer for every five who received free or low-cost meals during the school year.

Nationally, one child for every seven served during the school year participated in a summer nutrition program in July 2018.

Maryland ranks seventh nationally when it comes to the percentage of low-income children who are served during the summertime.

The issue is particularly important now, as Congress debates the Child Nutrition Reauthorization Bill, which authorizes federal school meal and child nutrition programs including the National School Lunch Program, the School Breakfast Program, and others.

U.S. Rep. David J. Trone (D) represents parts of Montgomery County and Western Maryland in Congress and is on the committee that will consider the reauthorization bill. On Tuesday, he took tours of summer food programs in Washington, Frederick and Montgomery counties, meeting with providers and advocates to discuss ways to improve the law.

U.S. Rep. David Trone (D) at a meeting in Montgomery Village to discuss child nutrition programs on Tuesday. Photo by Danielle E. Gaines.

“America can do so much better for our children. And if we spend dollars now thoughtfully and intentionally, we’re going to help our kids succeed in school,” Trone said in an interview with Maryland Matters. “And if they succeed in school, we’re going to have a more successful battle against addiction, a more successful battle against incarceration, and when these children come out, they’ll have better careers, higher earnings and they’ll support the next generation.”

At a meeting at the North Creek Community Center in Montgomery Village, advocates and officials suggested changes that could streamline summer food programs and extend help to more children struggling with food insecurity.

One proposal would be to lower the threshold for defined “areas of poor economic conditions” from the current 50 percent threshold for free and reduced-price meals to 40 percent.

That could expand summer meal program offerings in rural communities, where poverty is less concentrated. And in places like Montgomery County, it could help families that are underserved among wealthier neighbors. Barbara W. Harral, assistant director of the Montgomery County Division of Food & Nutrition Services, said such a shift would change eligibility for high school areas in Montgomery County from one school now to six at the 40-percent threshold.

Enabling greater community-wide certification could help provide food to other students who are eligible, but don’t apply for free and reduced-price meals individually. In many cases, children don’t apply because of stigmas, or because they come from families of mixed immigration status.

Students are less likely to ask parents to fill out a FARMS form seeking low-cost meals because of proposed changes to federal “public charge” laws that could deny immigrants legal status if they or extended family members have previously used government-funded health care or child care programs, including free or reduced meals.

Michael J. Wilson, director of Maryland Hunger Solutions in Baltimore, said he regularly hears of families reluctant to sign up for food that is needed by eligible children because of fear of immigration repercussions. The city of Baltimore sued the Trump administration in November, challenging the changes to public charge policies.

Carolyn Camacho, director of youth centers for the Montgomery County-based advocacy group Identity, said immigrant families have had concerns for years, but it’s heightened now.

“Now they’re even more vulnerable,” she said. “Even if children are born here, they’re afraid.”

Panelists also suggested that federal lawmakers should align requirements for the Summer Food Service Program and Afterschool Meal Program, which have different eligibility criteria for service providers during different times of the year. Doing so would allow seamless, year-round food programs for students in need.

Trone said he would work to move forward several of the ideas presented Tuesday, but he was concerned his Republican colleagues – particularly those who will move forward a separate Senate bill – won’t be so inclined to expand child nutrition programs.

“We’re going to get this pushback, I’m afraid, that this is going to cost money,” Trone said. “The counter argument is that you save twice as much money or four times as much money. Investing in good childhood nutrition and taking care of our kids so they succeed – that’s the smartest money we’re ever going to spend.”

The full report from Food Research & Action Center released Wednesday is online.

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