More Meal Money for Youth Programs

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The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) is trying to get more youth organizations to take its money to feed kids this summer.

The department is hoping to triple the number of youths fed under the Summer Food Service Program by increasing subsidies, streamlining the sponsorship process and waging an outreach campaign to youth-serving organizations such as camps, churches and recreation centers.

On an average school day, 14 million low-income youth receive free lunch in more than 98,000 schools through the USDA’s Food and Nutrition Services (FNS). Although all of these youth are also eligible for two free meals a day in the summer, only about 3 million children took advantage last year.

Undersecretary Eric Bost “saw that here was a wonderful program being underutilized,” FNS spokeswoman Susan Acker said.

The department raised its reimbursement rates (the amount it pays organizations for each meal served to a youth) by 3.17 percent for this summer. The new rates provide $1.32 per meal for breakfast, $2.30 per meal for lunch and $.53 for a snack, while also providing a small reimbursement for administrative costs.

Using a model that the USDA says has been successful in pilot programs in California, the department will try what Acker called a “more seamless” sponsorship process for schools. Any school providing free lunches in an area where at least half of the students qualify for them will no longer have to apply annually for the summer service or attend more training sessions with the state agencies that administer the subsidies. Also, a 14-state pilot program offers simplified paperwork for non-school agencies.

Most importantly, Acker said, is the effort to recruit more summer sponsors at programs that may not realize they are eligible to provide the meals. According to the FNS website, recreation centers, playgrounds, churches, day camps, housing projects and Indian reservations are sites that would qualify to serve meals.

The department has recruited nutrition awareness advocates to spread the word. The Food Research and Action Center, American School Food Service Association and America’s Second Harvest will work with their networks of local partners to help organizations apply for the funding and to make parents aware of existing meal sites in their area.