By Margaret T. Simpson
PASADENA–Hungry children don’t think about trends or statistics. They just want a good meal. But educators and policy advocates are watching the numbers to see if this year’s Summer Food Program will reach 1.9 million eligible low-income California students who didn’t take advantage of free meals available in 2009.
The number of summer food sites decreased by almost 50 percent in 2009 from the previous year, and many parents weren’t notified about other summer meal locations in their communities.
“Schools cut their summer school, and it was sudden enough that other agencies in the community didn’t have time to respond,” said Phyllis Bramson-Paul, director of nutrition services division for the California Department of Education.
Overall use of the summer meal program statewide has declined for several years from a high of 29 percent of those eligible in 2006 to last year’s low of 21 percent. Yet the number of eligible children has risen. In 2008, 1.6 million children were eligible to participate but did not. Last year’s increase to 1.9 million brought concerns that this summer’s participation rate will be even lower than last year due to the continued loss of summer school programs.
Many factors influence participation rates, including the number and type of site sponsors, parent notification, safety of site locations and the perception of stigma in receiving program meals.
“The need is definitely there,” said Wes Howard, interim child nutrition administrator for the Pasadena Unified School District. “From what I gather in speaking to parents and my workers, I’m anticipating this summer around 6,500 for lunch and 4,000 for breakfast.” This is a 20 percent increase over last summer’s participation rate for the district.
Howard’s aggressive marketing, including appearances on local cable television, resulted in 14 new nonprofit sponsors to compensate for the loss of summer school sites. Howard praised the Department of Education’s outreach efforts that include a new coalition to increase program sponsors and offer enhanced training.
“Even during the regular school year, our free and reduced-food eligibility in Pasadena is 70 percent,” said Howard. “Out of that 70 percent, our participation rates were 92 percent per day, which tells me even though that stigma may be there, the need overrides that stigma. Parents are strapped now because of the economic times we’re in.”
A hopeful trend in summer meal programming is to link meals with learning. More sites offer day camps with art, exercise and field trips. Working parents find a safe, well-staffed meal site that provides quality child care and enrichment.
In the cafeteria of Altadena Elementary School, Rose Kalajian manages a summer breakfast and lunch program that serves over 150 students per meal, mostly children in the early grades. Her day program is one of the area’s largest, with more than 84 percent of students enrolled in the low-income meal program.
Kalajian is convinced her program provides vital nutrition for many of the students.
“Some children are not eating breakfast at home,” she said. “No one in this country should go hungry.”
In the lunchroom next to Kalajian’s cafeteria, parent Daria Gale works part-time as a teacher’s aide in the summer. Gale’s four children eat at the school, and she relies on the subsidized meals, which include fresh vegetables and fruit, to keep her family healthy.
“I think it’s great. I’m low-income, and I don’t have to buy all the extra food,” she said. School breakfast and lunch meals are a big part of her family’s diet during the summer months. “Fresh fruit and vegetables are so costly at the grocery store. Usually at home it’s canned vegetables all the time.”
Kalajian said parents feel safe sending their children to the school. Its high teacher-to-student ratio (the Pasadena district requires one aide for every 10 students) and structured learning modules offer a positive learning experience. “It needs to be safe for kids,” she said.
Not all summer meal sites are at schools. Program sponsors can include nonprofits, food banks, city parks departments and Indian Tribal governments.
Howard has noticed a decline in park-based participation, and the trend worries him.
“In the past we’d get all the neighborhood kids at the local parks,” he said. “The parks used to be big numbers.”
Many parents believe that parks are high-crime areas no longer safe for children, said Howard, and whether their fears are accurate or supported by statistics, it is the perception that matters most. Recent cutbacks in park security personnel haven’t helped to reassure parents their kids will be safe in the parks.
“Most of the kids who are eating are students enrolled in City of Pasadena day camp or some type of structured program,” said Howard. “Very few kids are just in the parks.”
Site Coordinator Antoinette Hernandez and her staff are based in Pasadena’s McDonald Park. Her site is a walk-in site, open to any child in the neighborhood, and the number of children varies from day to day. Her staff-to-child ratio is high, and staff members are vigilant about ensuring a safe environment for children in their program.
Hernandez decided early on to educate children and parents about good nutrition. “Some kids haven’t been fed breakfast at home,” she said. “Parents send kids to the park with bags of cookies and candy snacks.” Under her supervision, children have built solar ovens and prepared fresh salsa. For some children it’s their first taste of fresh food.
The focus on health reduces any embarrassment a parent may have, said Hernandez, and the activities provide a safe, fun learning opportunity for kids.
Irene Borromeo, a local resident, walked her children to McDonald Park. It was only their first day, and she was impressed. Her son and daughter ate their lunches and then pieced together a jigsaw puzzle with Hernandez and several staff members.
“It’s so accessible,” said Borromeo. “I definitely think it’s a positive experience. It’s important to have a supervised environment.”
Hernandez wants to get the word out about her site. “Parents are trying to find good day care, so letting people know about our program is really important.” Kids tell their friends, she said, and that helps.
“We’re very fortunate to have the program,” she said. “We don’t want it to disappear.”