Summer Food Programs Face Challenges in Rural Areas

The USDA summer food service program provides free meals to low-income children and teens when school is not in session

The USDA summer food service program provides free meals to low-income children and teens when school is not in session Shutterstock


Connecting state and local government leaders

Paperwork, administrative burdens and transportation issues can lead to lower participation among children in rural areas, experts said at a House subcommittee hearing.

Participation in summer food programs for children increased nationwide by 30 percent from 2007 to 2016, but administrative headaches and transportation issues can make it difficult for smaller providers and rural communities to participate, experts said Tuesday at a House committee hearing.

“Availability and awareness of meal sites posed a challenge in a majority of states, particularly in rural areas where low population density, lack of transportation and limited numbers of meal sites limited children’s participation,” Kathryn Larin, director of education, workforce and income security at the federal Government Accountability Office told the House Subcommittee on Early Childhood, Elementary and Secondary Education.

Administrative and paperwork burdens also pose challenges for smaller providers, she said.

The summer food service program, administered by the federal Department of Agriculture, provides free meals to low-income children and teens when school is not in session. The program administered 149 million meals to children in fiscal year 2016, but participation numbers are unclear due to inconsistent reporting methods across state lines, according to a GAO report released in May.

Tuesday’s hearing addressed those reporting challenges, but focused mostly on innovative summer food programs at the state level. In New Jersey, for example, a nonprofit organization started its efforts to hike participation through increasing by 73 percent the number of children receiving breakfast at school.

“Then, recognizing the fact that at the end of the academic year the issue of hunger does not disappear but in fact is made worse, we really turned to summer food,” said Adele LaTourette, director of the New Jersey Anti-Hunger Coalition.

Last July, the group fed roughly 95,000 children on an average day, a 27 percent increase since 2015. The coalition oversaw 116 sponsors at 1,372 sites across New Jersey, serving 3.2 million summer meals.

“These are all numbers, but really what they represent is children being fed during the summer, and again, that is the No.1 goal,” she said. “I had my child in a summer program that really saved my life as a working mother. We need these programs. We have to expand them and we have to make sure that children are fed during the summer.”

In rural areas, community partnerships are a key method of bridging gaps in service, said Denise Ogilvie, vice president of outreach and grants management for the Catholic Charities of Northeast Kansas, a ministry that serves 21 counties.

Last summer the group operated 32 summer food program sites, serving more than 15,000 meals. Many of those were run in conjunction with schools, low-income housing projects, churches and community centers.

“The big thing is community partnerships,” Ogilvie said. “When we go into a small rural community, we look for people who are already working with children. We found libraries to be a huge area where kids kind of hang out during the summer.”

Lifting administrative hurdles could help facilitate more of those programs. For example, Ogilvie said, transportation is a common roadblock for kids living in rural areas, so providing meals at locations that are already convenient for families could help. (Many programs require that children find their own transportation to pre-arranged meal sites and consume their food there.)

“Kids can’t get to town when they live on a farm,” she said. “One example was a pastor in a church in a very tiny town in Kansas asked … what if churches were allowed to give out meals for the week?”

The paperwork required for applications, funding and oversight also poses a large burden for smaller programs, most of which are staffed by volunteers, Ogilvie said.

“I’ve seen a lot of communities where small groups were doing summer food programs, and they dropped off because it was so challenging for them to be able to do the paperwork,” she said. “They just were not staffed to do that.”

Summer food programs also offer economic benefits, particularly when they include activities and academic enrichment. For working parents, those programs can function as de facto seasonal daycare, LaTourette said.

“Without the program that I was able to enroll my daughter in honestly I don’t know how I would have worked. That’s what it comes down to and that’s what we have to recognize that families are dealing with,” she said. “There is such a dearth of these programs in so many areas and I think it’s so critical to be able to fill that gap.”

In Kansas, a mother of five came to one summer food site every day last summer. The children were eligible for free and reduced lunches during the school year, which allowed the family to get by financially, Ogilvie said.

“When her kids were in school, they were doing just fine—barely getting by, but able to make it,” she said. “When her kids were home from school her food budget could just in no way stretch to feed her children adequately. She said it was a godsend for her.”

Kate Elizabeth Queram is a Staff Correspondent for Government Executive’s Route Fifty and is based in Washington, D.C.

NEXT STORY: Replenishing a Food Desert, One Store at a Time