y H. Darr Beiser, USA TODAY
Michelle Berrios, 9, enjoys a do-it-yourself pizza as part of the summer food program at Greenbrier Learning Center in Arlington, Va.
By John McAuliff, USA TODAY
Summer food programs aiming to keep U.S. children from going hungry have grown 25 percent in the last five years amid a nationwide push by local food banks to change the way they serve food to needy people.
The programs try to close the nation's hunger gap by bringing food to children across the USA. Run by small charities that collect food donations and funded primarily by the federal government, the programs offer a safe location for children to eat lunch, and get free food to take home to their families.
Food banks say the rise in numbers is because of a push to find more creative ways to bring food to an estimated 19 million hungry U.S. children. For instance, a food bank in Gainesville, Fla., is using firetrucks and schoolbuses to deliver food to children in rural areas.
"Most of our counties are rural and children rely on us to get to them, so we go to the children," said Marcia Conwell, executive director of the Gainesville food bank, Bread of the Mighty. "If you take a bunch of food and go to a spot, only a certain number of kids can get there."
Hunger activists hope such strategies will have a long-term impact. But some, like Montana legislator Tom Burnett, think the numbers are inflated. He argues that the spike in summer food program growth comes from a "relaxing of restrictions" that is allowing students of any income bracket to receive a free lunch.
"One of my daughters went to a park with her friend where food was served, and the friend ran up and got a free lunch no problem," said Burnett, a Republican.
Making sure children get fed during the summer has a big impact on their work in the classroom as well, says Dr. Michele Borba an author and child expert. Citing a study by Johns Hopkins researchers, Borba explained that students who fail to eat healthy during the summer are falling two to three months behind their peers in achievement.
"The achievement gap is becoming so wide that it's a crater. Not getting the nutrition they need is draining the student's brains," she said.
Wal-Mart announced a $20 million grant last week to organizations running summer food programs. One-third of the grant will go directly to food, another to learning programs for the summer food program participants, and the last third to the creation of summer jobs for them.
Additional grants and increased awareness will help reach more hungry children, but the strength of individual programs comes in developing new strategies.
In Putnam City, Okla., West High School athletics director John Jenson and his wife Tammy started providing food for team players after a dramatic increase in the number of broken bones suffered during the season. They thought poor nutrition was causing the injuries, and expanded the food pantry to serve the entire school.
In Wake County, N.C., children line up outside the Power-up Meal Wagon the way they might stand in line for ice cream at the park. Instead, the meal wagon delivers a daily hot lunch, a bag of healthy snacks, breakfast meals and grocery bags of food to take home to their families.