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At the end of each school year, municipalities throughout the country seek ways to provide for the loss of free meals many children receive and rely on. However, federal regulations governing the programs that fund free meals to low-income children are blocking
the success of the effort.

Of the approximately 85,000 children attending Baltimore City public schools, 84 percent, or about 71,000 students, are eligible for free or reduced price meals at their school, according to information released by the Family League of Baltimore. Of those 71,000, 46,308 children received free or reduced price meals during the academic year.

Feeding America is a nonprofit that works to end food insecurity in the United States. Spokesman Ross Fraser said that over 21 million children across the country currently receive free or reduced price meals through the National School Lunch and Breakfast Programs, but lose access to those meals when school breaks for the summer. During the school year, children consume up to 50 percent of their calories at school, a large gap that municipalities seek creative ways to fill during the summer months.

The Baltimore Partnership to End Childhood Hunger operates 70 of the more than 200 stationary sites offering free meals to children during the summer in Baltimore City, according to Katherine Klosek, director of the Baltimore Partnership to End Childhood Hunger. It also operates 11 mobile food sites with routes in south, east, and west Baltimore.While the United States Department of Agriculture funds the meals, which are for children 18 and under, through its Summer Food Service Program, federal regulations currently limit the number and types of meals that can be served at any given location.

Each site is limited to serving two meals, and the meals cannot be lunch and supper. “The most likely reason is that the reimbursement rates for lunch and supper are pretty high, it’s about three dollars,” explained Klosek.

“That’s really high some of the highest in any federally funded nutrition program and so I think it’s just a costcontainment measure.”

Cost containing or not, the rule limits the effectiveness of meal sites, increases the number of sites required to provide an area with all three meals in a day, and forces low income residents, who may or may not have their own forms of transportation, to travel to various locations to take advantage of available meals.

Kim Trueheart, whose site the Liberty Rec and Tech Center in West Baltimore – serves over 300 children during the summer, noted that the closest sites to where children actually live, city schools, are not open. This, she said, increases potential transportation barriers for families needing the Summer Food Service Programs operated by the city and its partner agencies.

According to Klosek, the prohibition on serving three meals at a single site will result in 150,000 evening meals not being served over the course of the summer. This at a time when the food stamp benefits eligible families can receive has been reduced.

Trueheart points out that last year the Liberty Rec and Tech Center provided three meals a day, but the current interpretation of the federal regulation prohibits that now. “If we run our program for a full eight hours, which we do, then we send the children home on empty stomachs, and I think that is a tragedy,” said Trueheart. “We know that during the summer our kids need this access to food.

And if we send them home on empty bellies, the next morning when they come back to us, they probably haven’t eaten since we fed them lunch, and that’s unacceptable.”

The Baltimore Partnership to End Childhood Hunger is using social media to raise awareness of the federal limit changes and issues it creates. Follow the information and join the conversation on Twitter, via hashtag #3meals4bmore.

Roberto Alejandro

Special to the AFRO