Friday, May 21, 2010

Some rural kids are missing out on national summer food program

The U.S. Department of Agriculture created the Summer Food Service Program to feed 31 million students who are eligible for free and reduced price lunches during the school year but who may not have sufficient food during the summer. The program may not be reaching eligible rural students. "For families living in rural America, rates of poverty and food insecurity are among the highest in the country, yet of all the SFSP sites, less than one-third are located in rural communities," The Carsey Institute at the University of New Hampshire reports in a new study. Carsey found lack of transportation and long distances to SFSP sites are the largest barrier to rural program implementation and participation.

"Sponsors prefer operating programs as 'open sites,' which are locations like parks or schools where any child can go to obtain a free meal," Carsey reports. "However, to run an open site more than one-half of the children in the local school’s attendance area must be eligible for free or reduced price meals during the school year." Since rural students aren't often geographically concentrated many rural school districts struggle to meet the 50 percent requirement for an open site.

Open sites make up 83 percent of SFSP's program, because they do not require enrollment in a formal program. Finding sponsors for open or enrolled programs in rural areas can be difficult due to the challenges and costs inherent with transporting food and/or children, Carsey writes.

Population density represented another significant barrier in rural areas. Sponsors reported "with so few children in an area, it was difficult to break even on the cost of the program," Carsey writes. One strategy that does appear to help rural areas is the USDA's encouragement of local sponsors to recruit "local champions" to promote their program. Sponsors familiar with the initiative said local champions provide a "range of benefits, including talking with parents and increasing awareness of SFSP in communities, finding and persuading kids to come to the sites, coordinating volunteers and organizations, collaborating on program operation, providing outreach to potential sponsors, identifying sites with the greatest needs, and providing vision to the local program," Carsey writes. (Read more)

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