By LAUREN WALKER
Capital News Service
LANSING — For some of the hundreds of thousands of Michigan children who receive free or reduced school lunch, summer vacation may not be all fun and games.
According to a new report from the Michigan League for Human Services, in 2009, about 735, 000 students received free or reduced-price lunch, 26 percent more than in 2006.
The food service director for Mason County Central Schools, Mary Ann Nielsen, said the summer hunger gap is an increasing concern.
The number of low-income children who receive reduced-price lunch is rising, she said, and efforts such as the federally funded Summer Food Service Program attempt to reduce the problem.
“We have children that come in for breakfast in the morning and the last actual meal they had was lunch the day before,” she said.
“During the summer program, a lot kids come in where mom and dad both work and they’re grateful to come into our site in the summer and get lunch.”
The program is available to schools and nonprofit organizations in school districts where more than 50 percent of students qualify for free or reduced-price lunch.
Participation is open to all children regardless of economic status or whether they live in that district.
In 2009, the program served more than 2 million meals in Michigan.
Gloria Zunker, a school nutrition and training consultant for the state Department of Education said that was almost a 50 percent increase from the number five years earlier.
With the growing number of low-income areas in the state that qualify for the program, Zunker said the need for sponsors has increased.
Last year, there were about 215 sponsors and 1,100 meal sites.
While the program expects at least 1,100 sites this year, she said she hopes for a 26 percent increase in the number of sponsors.
“I anticipate more sites because I’ve been receiving several calls from schools in intermediate school districts that are interested in helping their communities through this program,” she said.
The program added 37 sponsors in 2010, Zunker said.
According to the Education Department, only 17 percent of eligible low-income children were able to get free food at a site in their neighborhoods.
Nielson, who sponsors five meal sites that serve around 220 children a day, said transportation is a major reason eligible children cannot take advantage of summer meal programs.
“We get a lot of kids that walk and that’s great, but we are a rural area, so unfortunately those kids just don’t have the transportation,” she said.
Zunker noted that some low-income children who receive reduced-price lunch might not live in a designated program area, so they have no meal site available to them.
She said the department is working with the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) through a pilot program that explores alternative methods of providing meals to such children.
Jane Zehnder-Merrell, director of the study by the League for Human Services, said that the solution must be more extensive.
“It’s a critical issue in terms of building the capacity within communities to have local food banks or have local distribution systems for food that can get out to people so that kids don’t necessarily have to come to a special site or program to have access,” she said.
While most sponsors are schools across the state, a handful are nonprofit organizations, such as the Michigan Christian Youth Camp in Attica.
The camp’s executive director, Dana Eubank, said that organizations don’t participate in the program because they don’t know about it.
“It’s a lack of knowledge about how the program can benefit them or their program. If they’re not sure of how to go about it, they’re not going to do it,” he said.
Zunker said that since the department took over the program in 2004 from the USDA, it has focused on increasing outreach and public awareness.
“We’ve tried to make people aware of the program, so in doing that, a lot of schools and other organizations have come forward to offer free meals to kids and utilize the federal funds to do so,” she said.
© 2011, Capital News Service, Michigan State University School of Journalism. Not to be reproduced without permission.