New report says more Vermont children are getting free summer lunches

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(Host) A new report says more poor Vermont children are enrolling in programs that provide free or reduced-price lunches in the summer.

But nutrition experts say there are still thousands of kids who probably go hungry when the school cafeteria closes each spring.

VPR’s Ross Sneyd reports.

(Sneyd) If you want to make sure children from poor families get a balanced diet, school lunch programs are ideal.

The kids are in school five days a week and you can make sure they get a good breakfast and healthy lunch every day.

But when school closes for the summer, that safety net goes with it.

(Busha) “For many low-income children, summer is not a happy time.”

(Sneyd) Jo Busha is director of child nutrition for the state Education Department.

Not only do they miss out on balanced meals, she says, but the kids also don’t have structured activities to fill their days.

Children do gather at a wide array of places in the summer – local parks, pools, camps, libraries.

So enrichment programs have been developed at many of them by state and local governments, as well as advocacy organizations.

Busha says those programs also give nutrition experts an opportunity to reach kids.

(Busha) “So most of our programs aren’t just food, but they’re connected to some other type of activity.”

(Sneyd) Last summer, more than 57-hundred children participated in a summer activity that provided them free or reduced-price lunch.

The national Food Research and Action Center says only seven states reach a greater percentage of eligible children.

(Kunz) “We’re still not doing enough.”

(Sneyd) Sarah Kunz helps to organize many of the programs as the summer outreach specialist at the Vermont Campaign to End Childhood Hunger.

She says that even with its successes during the summer, Vermont still reaches only one in four kids who qualify for free lunches at school.

That means there are thousands of families who struggle while school’s out.

(Kunz) “Families really rely on those two meals a day that kids are getting at school, free or reduced price breakfasts or lunch. And it’s really difficult for low-income families to all of the sudden be providing an additional ten meals per week for kids. And for family budgets that are already stretched, summer requires those budgets to stretch even more.”

(Sneyd) Research shows that children who spend the summer without adequate nutrition take longer to catch back up when they return to school in the fall.

Advocates hope some changes will be made in the next year, when the federal law that funds summer lunches is renewed. They want to make it easier to organize summertime programs in rural places like Vermont.

For VPR News, I’m Ross Sneyd.

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