While classes were in session, they relied on free or discount cafeteria meals subsidized by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. But they will not be reached by the patchwork summer food programs financed by the USDA, which feed fewer than one in five of the total number of kids poor enough to qualify.
The children caught in the gap will likely spend the next few months cadging leftovers from neighbors, chowing down on cheap junk, lining up with their families at food banks that are already overmatched or simply learning to live with a constant headache, growling stomach and chronic fatigue. When school rolls around again in the fall, they will be less healthy and less ready to learn than their peers.
The problem is not new, of course, but indicators for a crisis are lining up. Federal studies show that "food insecurity" for children peaks during summer, said USDA spokeswoman Jean Daniel, adding, "That's a cutting-edge research term for hunger." Demand for food stamps is already up. Demand at food banks is already way up. Donations, however, are down.
With the national economy limping and joblessness still high, a record 20.5 million students needed federally subsidized school lunches in 2010, up from 19.4 million in 2009, according to an AOL News analysis of federal statistics.
How much those children depend on that help is evident during the academic year: Teachers in many poor communities note that students are apprehensive every Friday about how they'll face bare larders over the weekend, and they are ravenous when they return on Monday morning. And that's after just two days off.
Once classes end, they are less visible but no less needy.
National Crisis, Local Burden
The USDA paid for meals for 3.3 million children over the summer break last year, through programs cobbled together by local governments and nonprofit groups. Money flows through an ungainly system: The local organizations provide meals and get reimbursed by the state government, which in turn receives federal payments.
State by state, the ability to get meals to poor children varied wildly during last year's school vacation. Twelve states, along with Guam and Puerto Rico, each fed fewer than one in 10 eligible children, the AOL News analysis shows. Only New Mexico, New York and the District of Columbia managed to feed more than one-third of the children who had received lunches at school.
Consequently, USDA is having trouble bridging the chasm between the number of children across the country who need help and the number of children who get it. The department has set aside enough money to pay for 5 percent more meals served this year, but there is no guarantee that the jerry-rigged network will be able to deliver them.
"The demand during the [past] school year has increased at a much faster rate than the summer food program can pick up," said Crystal FitzSimons, a program director at the Food Research and Action Center in Washington.
And given the state of the economy, the growing demand couldn't have come at a worse time. "We're worried about the impact of budget cuts all over the country," FitzSimons told AOL News.
Eligible students enrolled in summer school are fed through a continuation of the regular lunch service, but only 1.1 million children got free or discount meals that way in 2009, records show. That number is not likely to grow: In many districts facing huge budget shortfalls, summer school itself is a tempting target. The vast majority of last season's federally subsidized meals were served at parks, rec centers, churches and community charities, and those too are caught in the recession's pinch.
Even in good times, building a food network from scratch every summer is a gargantuan task. Officials from USDA, food banks and local school systems all say it's difficult to recruit local feeding sponsors willing and able to abide by federal regulations. USDA rules require children to eat their meals together on site. They require a trained monitor. The meals need to meet nutrition standards.
With the exception of a few summer camps, the food sites also must be in neighborhoods where at least half the children are poor enough to qualify for school-time aid. With Congress considering child nutrition bills, several hunger policy groups have called for a lower threshold of 40 percent, which would allow more communities with significant pockets of poverty to get federal money for meals.
Even if hunger advocates get their way, reaching large numbers of children will require more local sponsors. Oklahoma, for instance, fed summer meals to just 5.3 percent of the eligible youngsters last year. "It's not nearly enough," Paula Clayton, programs director for the Regional Food Bank of Oklahoma, told AOL News. "We'd like to grow. It's just finding the staff, getting the trucks out there."
New Ideas to Bridge the Gap
To get more people involved, USDA has been trying to encourage innovative thinking. It is funding demonstration projects, for instance, in Mississippi and Arkansas, to try to improve last year's low participation rates (7.9 and 10.6 percent, respectively) in those two states.
"I went to a conference in D.C. and listened to all these amazing, creative things that people are doing to create these programs," said Sherrie Tussler, executive director of the Hunger Task Force, which is based in Milwaukee.
At the same time, she understands why so few step forward: "Look at all the manpower that goes into putting this together just to break it all down 12 weeks later."
In Milwaukee, Tussler's organization has linked up with private partners like the Salvation Army and the Wisconsin-based motorcycle company Harley-Davidson to pick up some of the slack: allowing a van, for instance, to travel to neighborhoods where there is no summer meal program. These streets are quiet, Tussler said. "There's no sound of excited play. The kids are flattened." Children line up in a scene reminiscent of refugees seeking help from foreign aid workers in a far-off land. Handing out bags of food from coolers in the back of the van does not qualify for federal reimbursement, so the donors cover the cost.
The Hunger Task Force reached just 17 percent of Milwaukee's eligible children when it began its summer food program in 2003 and has increased that figure to 25 percent, Tussler said, well above the statewide rate of 18.8 percent.
But that still means thousands of the city's children don't get enough food. In Milwaukee, summer school will be in session for just four weeks, down from eight, and will only operate Mondays through Thursdays. The rest of the time, "the culture is that they don't want kids in the building while they are trying to clean it up," so local elementary schools are not available for nonprofits to use as meal sites, Tussler said.
In rural areas, the obstacles are even greater. The food bank where Clayton works in Oklahoma has to find nonperishable food for meal sites in the southwest part of the state, because the central operation in Oklahoma City can deliver only twice a month. It's a three-hour drive each way.
Transportation in the countryside is also a big issue for the kids. No school bus is operating and their parents are likely working, but the distances are too far to walk.
Even the lucky few who find a way to a meal site may face periods when they must go without. Clayton still thinks often of her encounter with a boy who looked to be about 10 years old in Lawton, near Fort Sill, where one out of five children lives in poverty. The youngster rode his bike each day to a park where lunch was served and had just heard on a mid-August day that the program was finished for the season.
"What will I do for the next two weeks before school starts?" he asked.
"I just looked at him," Clayton recalled. "And I worried about it a lot."
To learn more about the summer meals program and to find out where the feeding sites are located, call the National Hunger Clearinghouse and Hunger Hotline toll-free at 866-348-6479 (866-3-HUNGRY), 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. weekdays and 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Saturdays EST.