Free summer meal program participation declines in suburbs, nation

Programs providing free summer meals to low-income children in Illinois and nationwide are seeing declines in participation, according to a recent hunger report.

In Illinois, where more than half the student population is low-income, 89,065 children participated in summer meals programs in 2017 - down 2,439 children, or 2.7 percent, from the previous summer. Illinois' summer participation fell 18.5 percent in 2016 from the previous year, according to a national report.

Advocates say there hasn't been a decline in need, but rather attribute the drop-off to not enough awareness about the program within disadvantaged communities.

Before 2016, summer meals programs nationwide saw four years of steady growth due to targeted outreach to low-income groups, said Jena Wallander, outreach and evaluation coordinator for the Illinois Hunger Coalition.

More public/private funding at the federal, state and local levels, and more site sponsors are now needed to invest in similar outreach efforts and increase participation, Wallander added.

The numbers are more encouraging in communities served by the Northern Illinois Food Bank, which sponsors 130 meals sites in 13 counties, including DuPage, Kane, Lake and McHenry.

That agency's participation numbers dropped dramatically in 2016 when it served 225,601 meals compared to more than 256,522 meals the previous summer. But participation shot up last year with 268,620 meals served. Though the agency is sponsoring fewer sites this summer, organizers expect to reach more children.

"This year, we are projected to do 288,000 meals," said Jen Lamplough, NIFB director of nutrition programs. "We are not focusing so much on getting more sites. We are more focused on serving more kids in the sites we have."

Participation numbers are important because as summer break begins, millions of low-income students lose access to free and reduced-price school breakfasts and lunches they rely on during the school year. The federal Summer Food Service Program tries to fill that void ensuring low-income children have access to nutritious meals throughout the summer.

Many summer meal sites, such as at schools and park districts, offer educational, enrichment, physical and recreational activities, while keeping children safe and providing child care.

Nationwide, one in seven children - more than 3 million - received a nutritious meal last year through summer meals programs. That's a decrease of 14,000 children getting summer meals from 2016, according to the Food Research & Action Center's 2018 report. That compares to 20 million students who participated in free and reduced-price school lunches during the 2016-17 school year

Wallander said the number of open meals sites in DuPage, Kane and Lake counties has increased this year, which could mean better coverage and higher participation. More suburban open sites are expected to be added in the coming weeks, especially in Cook County.

Open meal sites offer food to any child under the age of 18 without requiring registration or documentation. Closed sites often are summer camps or summer schools serving only children registered in those programs.

To increase participation, Northern Illinois Food Bank employees conducted a summit in April to train site partners on how to draw people through activities and resources. They also are providing meals at popular spots people frequent, such as book mobile locations, splash pads and park district programs.

"There was a need in Aurora for open sites and we just didn't have a site partner," Lamplough said.

Instead, the agency created a program called "Meals on the Move," distributing meals through a van at six Aurora parks daily. "We have engaged with the city, park district, library ... we are really trying to get everybody at the table so that we can all work together to serve as many kids as possible who need meals in the summer," Lamplough said.

To sponsor a meals site for next summer, call the Hunger Coalition at (800) 359-2163.

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