Programs that provide free summer meals to low-income children in Arizona are becoming rarer, leaving families that depend on school lunch programs in a bind during summer vacation.
A report released earlier this month by the Food Research and Action Center in Washington, D.C., noted a 26 percent drop in the number of children in the state’s National School Lunch Program between July 2004 and July 2005.
“Our numbers have dropped. That is a national trend,” said Mary Szafranski, deputy superintendent of health and nutrition at the Arizona Department of Education. “The schools do not offer summer school as much anymore; they’re not offering activities they used to. More and more schools are not opening in the summer.”
The summer months bring a higher need for food, said Ginny Hildebrand, executive director of the Association of Arizona Food Banks.
“Our food box numbers will often increase in the summer, because families are suddenly having to stretch their budgets to make sure they are feeding their kids all the meals,” she said.
Yet Hildebrand and Tom Horne, state superintendent of public instruction, said the report doesn’t paint an accurate picture of state food programs because not all participants were accounted for.
The numbers the food research group calculated did not include hundreds of schools that simply continue the same free-lunch programs they run during the school year, Horne said.
When those numbers are included, the drop in participants between 2004 and 2005 is just 6 percent, according to numbers provided by Szafranski.
Another problem with the report, Horne said, is that the research group counts July numbers, typically lower because many of the state’s largest programs only offer lunches in June, then shut down for the remainder of the summer.
For example, in June 2005 the state supplied more than 1.3 million free lunches. In July, that number dropped by more than half.
That’s a big problem, said Crystal Fitzsimons, a senior policy analyst at the research center.
“There’s no reason why schools can’t keep their doors open during the summer months to feed kids, even though summer school ends,” she said. “Kids need meals the first day summer vacation starts, and the last day of summer vacation. “
This summer, just 200 of the 505 sites in the state will operate through the end of July. In the East Valley, there are 22 such schools in Scottsdale, Tempe, Guadalupe and in the Salt River Pima-Maricopa Indian Community.
Lunch programs in the Mesa and Chandler school districts stopped at the end of June.
“Traditionally, in this district we only run it for the time that summer programs are going on, for instance, if an elementary school has a special reading program that is bringing kids on campus,” said Loretta Zullo, food and nutrition director in the Mesa Unified School District.
Next year, a handful of sites in more needy neighborhoods will stay open through July, she said.
In Chandler, remodeling projects closed many of the sites usually offering lunches, said Audri Knutson, a supervisor in the district’s food and nutrition department.
She estimated 250 kids were served each day, as opposed to the typical 1,800 children last summer.
In districts that close in July, a few Boys and Girls Clubs stay open to offer lunches and snacks.
Hildebrand said she does agree with one point in the report: The need for awareness campaigns about the summer food programs.
“Summer food for Arizona has been a well-kept secret for some time,” she said. “We’ve certainly known summer food is gravely underutilized — they don’t know about it.”
Just 14 percent of families who visited food banks said they use the summer food program, she said.
Horne’s department recently created a new staff position that will focus on expanding the program and reaching out to communities to make them aware of it, he said.
In addition, Arizona was added this year to a growing list of states participating in a summer food program that simplifies paperwork and gives higher federal reimbursements for food, Szafranski said.
Other states that have implemented the new programs have seen a quick rise in the number of summer lunch programs, she said.
She also said she is working to increase the number of community centers, churches and recreation clubs that can serve meals when schools are closed.
To learn more
To find food programs near you, or to learn how to obtain an emergency food box, call the Arizona Association of Food Banks at 800-445-1914. You can also head to a library and go online to www.arizonaselfhelp.org to determine ifyou are eligible for food stamps or other programs to assist with food purchases.