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Few children ate free summer meals

The neediest children in Kansas have made very little use of the free meals offered each summer through a federal program.

Only 6.8 percent of the state's children who are eligible for free or reduced-price lunches at public schools took advantage of the free meals during the summer of 2008, according to the Food Research and Action Center, a Washington-based nonprofit.

That has Kansas ranked 49th out of the 50 states and the District of Columbia. Only Oklahoma and Mississippi are lower, at 4.6 and 4.4 percent, respectively.

To help increase the participation, the Kansas Food Bank is working with the Wichita school district for this summer's program, which began serving breakfasts and lunches Tuesday and continues through July 30.

Attempts have been made to raise awareness of the program, plus the number of sites have been increased to 40 from 26 last summer.

"We want to make sure the hungry kids get fed," said food bank president and CEO Brian Walker. "We said, 'Wait a minute, we need to help out.' "

Walker put his forces into action shortly after the 2008 figures became available last year. Although the food bank serves 85 Kansas counties, it targeted its help in Wichita, where there is the greatest concentration of need.

Seventy percent of Wichita schoolchildren qualify for free or reduced-price lunches, said Vicki Hoffman, the school district's nutrition services director.

No school funds are spent on the program.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture pays for the food for the Summer Food Service Program, which is open to all children. There are no income or other qualifications for children under 18 to receive the free meals.

But those who have the greatest need of the free meals haven't been taking part.

The research center figured that out by looking at the participation rate of the children who qualified for the federally subsidized lunch program during the school year.

The food bank used a grant from the Wichita Community Foundation to produce some promotional material, including banners that were put up in front of the sites and door hangers that have been distributed throughout neighborhoods — in English and Spanish.

In addition, the food bank used its contacts throughout Wichita to expand the number of sites.

Different states use various means to administer the federal program. In Kansas, the state Department of Education has been assigned that role.

But with schools strapped for cash, fewer of their buildings are open in the summer.

In the past, a handful of churches and community organizations, such as the Atwater Neighborhood City Hall, have opened their doors for the program. This year, 17 of the 40 sites aren't schools.

Sites are selected based on where there is the greatest need, said Polly Basore, community relations director for the food bank.

Federal money pays for a person to deliver and serve meals from the school district's central kitchen at all of the sites, Basore said. The rest of the staffing is done by volunteers.

Because the program provides free meals to all children, Basore said, "A lot of people get upset and say, 'Oh you're feeding kids that don't need it.' Well, generally kids who don't need it aren't walking to the local school in the summer to get a free meal. They're snacking out of the cupboards at home."

To try to be selective about which children are truly needy wouldn't be possible during the summer because staff isn't available, Hoffman said.

"It wouldn't work," she said. "It would be a barrier for the kids."

Children also may eat at any site, not just the one in their neighborhood, Hoffman said.

All 40 of the sites serve lunches, and 26 of those also offer breakfasts.

Two of the lunches each week are hot meals, including pizza each Friday.

"We really hope we serve more kids (this summer)," Hoffman said.

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