Quick Hit Ellyn Fortino Monday June 27th, 2016, 12:11pm

Illinois Expands Reach Of Summer Meal Programs, But 686,000 Kids Still Missing Out

More low-income Illinois children are participating in summer meal programs, but there are still nearly 686,000 eligible kids missing out, a new report shows.

About 112,000 low-income Illinois children received summer meals on a daily basis last July, according to the report by the Food Research and Action Center (FRAC), a national anti-hunger group.

That figure represents a 4.7 percent increase from July 2014, when about 107,000 low-income Illinois children accessed summer meal programs each day.

While advocates are pleased by the 4.7 percent increase, they point out that summer meals are reaching only one in seven low-income Illinois children who need them.

"It's very positive news that summer meals have been reaching more children in Illinois, but the program is still falling short of the need," said Illinois Hunger Coalition Executive Director Diane Doherty. "Illinois can and should build on the progress it has made by redoubling outreach efforts throughout the summer to make sure that all children, and their parents, are aware of this valuable program."

Of the more than 798,000 low-income Illinois students who received free or reduced-price lunch during the 2014-2015 school year, nearly 686,000 did not participate in summer meal programs in July 2015. 

To put it another way, just 14 children received summer meals in July 2015 for every 100 low-income Illinois children who ate school lunches during the school year. 

Illinois ranked 31st in the nation for the number of eligible children who ate summer meals last year, down from 28th in 2014. 

FRAC's report sets a goal of reaching 40 children with summer nutrition programs for every 100 participating in school lunch. 

If Illinois had hit that target, an additional 207,032 low-income children would have received summer meals every day in July 2015 and the state would have gained over $16 million in federal reimbursement dollars.

Nationwide, summer meal programs served nearly 3.2 million low-income children in July 2015, up .3 percent compared to the previous summer. Summer meal programs include the federal Summer Food Service Program and the National School Lunch Program.

"If every state had reached the goal of 40 children participating in summer nutrition in July 2015 for every 100 receiving free or reduced-price lunch during the 2014-2015 school year, an additional 4.9 million children would have been fed each day," the report reads. "States would have collected an additional $384 million in child nutrition funding in July alone."

To get more children participating in summer nutrition programs, FRAC leaders are pressing federal lawmakers to pass a strong child nutrition reauthorization bill, which is currently being debated in Congress.

The anti-hunger group is recommending several measures that would expand the reach of summer nutrition programs and make it easier for program sites to provide meals year-round. FRAC also supports the idea of providing families enrolled in child nutrition programs with an Illinois Electronic Benefit Transfer (EBT) Link Card card in the summer so they can purchase food at retail stores. 

"Greater participation in summer food means more low-income children get the fuel they need to thrive over the summer months," said FRAC President Jim Weill. "That reduces hunger, boosts health, reduces obesity, and keeps children primed to learn. Congress can better meet the need through the pending child nutrition reauthorization by making strategic and thoughtful investments in the summer nutrition programs that bolster their capacity to serve even more children."

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