WXXI Local Stories
4:26 pm
Fri June 24, 2011

Summer Food Program Fights Attendance Drop

Rochester, NY – WXXI's Kate O'Connell explains how the number of kids taking advantage of Rochester's free summer meals program has fallen dramatically and what's being done to make sure poor children get the healthy food they need.

Lunch time. At school it becomes the crux of the day and is a vital tool for kids to continue learning.

During the school year, 89 per cent of students in the Rochester City School District are eligible for free and reduced-price breakfasts and lunches.

But as the summer holidays role around, these meals are no longer provided by school cafeterias, instead the Summer Foods Program takes their place. Yet less than half of the children eligible for free lunches at school are using the summer foods program.

Still, Healthi Kids program manager Rachel Pickering says the program is a great opportunity which should be taken advantage of by all families in the city.

Starting on Monday and running until August, this program offers free breakfasts and lunches to people 18 years and under, aiming to provide kids with nutritious meals during the long school break.

There are 55,000 food insecure households in the Rochester area, and yet, the number of kids taking advantage of the free meals program has dropped dramatically in the past 3 years. Last year, 30,000 fewer breakfasts and 40,000 fewer lunches were served than in 2008, and this year the numbers are expected to drop even further.

Policy analyst at the Children's Agenda Carolyn Lee-Davis says the problem may lie in a lack of awareness about the program.

With a 40 per cent poverty rate among children in Rochester, Lee-Davis says it is unlikely that these kids are getting their meals elsewhere during the break, and the low numbers are alarming because food insecurity can seriously affect growth and learning.

Pickering agrees and says the lack of nutritious meals is also contributing to childhood obesity. Federally funded, this program is based on participation. Due to the drop in the number of meals being served, $149,000 of federal funding has been cut from the project in this year's budget. Jerome Underwood from the Rochester City Schools District office says a lack of advertising could be the key.

Despite the drop in participation in the Summer foods program, Pickering says it is still very important and can be truly beneficial to the community.

There are 40 recreation centers and 13 school s providing free meals in partnership with the city, Foodlink, the Healthi Kids Initiative and the city school district.

With the school year finished, the children of Rochester not only have the opportunity to relax and play, they have the opportunity to eat nutritious meals each week day.

Underwood says this is invaluable and is a project which should be taken seriously and carried on far into the future.