Nearly half of Washington students are eligible for free or reduced-price meals in the public schools. But come summertime, few show up for the federally funded hot meals and lunch sacks offered at schools, parks and community centers.
Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., is proposing a new program that would provide families with funds to buy food over the summer. Families would get $150 for each child on free or reduced-price lunch. It would be distributed through debit cards distributed through DSHS.
Murray introduced the bill, called the Stop Child Hunger Act, on May 21 on the U.S. Senate floor. The program would cost $42 billion over 10 years and feed 30 million kids.
Murray’s bill pays for the program by closing a tax loophole for companies that expand operations overseas. The companies shift workers to other countries and then immediately deduct the interest before they report any taxable income. Murray’s plan would defer the deductions.
“From my perspective, that’s a fair trade,” Murray said.
Federal summer meal programs provide meals in group settings and reach only students who are within proximity of the meal locations.
Nationwide, the federal summer meal programs reach about 14 percent of eligible students. In Washington, the program only reaches 10 percent, according to the Food Research & Action Center.
“We have worked very hard to improve this number, but it’s been very hard going,” said Linda Stone, food policy director for the Children’s Alliance.
Summer meals are available at 800 sites across Washington, but some rural counties, such as Wenatchee, have one meal site that is accessible to just a few of the eligible students, Stone said.
School districts that create summer meal programs pay the initial costs and get reimbursed by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA). For small school districts, the reimbursement is not enough to cover the full cost of running a program for a few kids, said Donna Parsons, director of Child and Nutrition Services for the Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction.
Murray’s proposal is based on a USDA pilot, started in 2010, to provide families with grocery money instead of directing them to meal sites.
Washington was one of 10 states, along with several tribal organizations, to participate in it.
More than 1,500 families in Washington received $60 per child per month for the summer in 2012. A USDA study of the program found that the benefits reduced hunger by 33 percent for households on the program compared to households that were not.
“I think it’s a great option for remote locations that don’t have a summer food program and probably will never have one,” Parsons said.
More than 480,000 students in Washington — 46 percent of statewide enrollment — qualified for free or reduced-price meals in the 2012-13 school year. The figure is growing: In the 2008-09 school year, 420,895 or 40 percent of Washington students were eligible.