Food programs hard to sustain in rural areas
Cafeteria cooks Mary Bish, center, and Barb Rush, right, prepare to serve Robin Tracy, 9, as he walks up to the counter as the Central Greene School District's Summer Food Service Program makes its daily stop at the Valley Farm Drive apartments in Waynesburg.
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This summer, when South Side Area School District in the southwest corner of Beaver County sent home a flier with locations where children could get "free, healthy meals," parents at Harshbarger Mobile Home Park in Hookstown were upset by the changes.
"I threw it away when I saw it," one mother said. "How's that going to help me?"
Last summer, kids at Harshbarger had to walk only a few feet down the dirt and gravel roads of their trailer court to reach the Lunch Bus, a converted school bus that the district sent to three trailer parks in the county. Any child who showed up could eat a free meal on the bus, which was packed with coolers of food.
This year, South Side was forced to shut down its summer meals programs. To get the free meal their kids qualify for, parents at Harshbarger have to drive them 12 miles to a site run by another school district, a more than 20-minute ride on winding rural roads. None of the parents interviewed say they are willing or able to make the trip.
The fate of the Lunch Bus at Harshbarger is symptomatic of a larger problem in other rural school districts. In these areas, federal regulations, geography and recent budget cuts conspire to make running a Summer Food Service Program difficult.
For some school districts, like South Side, getting meals to the children who need them is almost impossible.
During the school year, more than 700,000 low-income children in Pennsylvania are eligible to receive free and reduced-price lunches. The Summer Food Service Program is intended to fill the gap left from June to August, when kids may be on vacation, but hunger is not.
Through the summer program, federal money, funneled through the state Education Department, pays individual organizations -- most of them school districts, churches and nonprofits -- to sponsor designated "summer feeding sites."
In order to be eligible as an "open site," where all children who show up can eat a meal regardless of economic status, the site must operate in either a census tract that has at least 50 percent of children eligible for free and reduced-price lunches or in the service area of a school where children meet those requirements. Sponsors are reimbursed based on the number of meals served.
Since its founding in 1975, the summer program has been under-attended. The national Food Research and Action Center found that only one in seven low-income students who depended on free school lunches had access to free summer meals in 2010.
That number is likely lower in places like Beaver County. "We believe that kids in rural areas don't have [the same] access to the program as kids in other communities," said Crystal FitzSimons, the director of school-age programming for the action center.
Main access problems in rural areas stem from geography.
"Sites need to be walkable for kids," said Chris West, regional coordinator for Allegheny County at the Southwestern Pennsylvania Food Security Partnership. "It's difficult for parents who are working to drive their kids miles down the road for a meal and then come back."
In Fayette County, there are only 58 summer lunch sites, compared with 204 in Allegheny County. While Allegheny serves far more children, the two counties are the same size. That means the number of sites per square mile is much lower in Fayette, which has the highest rate of child food insecurity - children who are at times unsure of where they will receive their next meal - in the state, according to the charity Feeding America.
"The federal programs work in a city, where all the kids can walk," said Carol Lambert, executive director of a food pantry in Slippery Rock. "But they just have no concept of what it's like to live in the boonies."
One solution -- to offer more food service sites per capita than in urban areas -- is complicated by strict federal funding regulations that make it more costly to operate rural sites.
Sponsors of summer program sites receive $3.38 per meal they serve, meant to cover food and staff and preparation costs. Rural sites feed far fewer children than urban sites do -- sometimes as few as five or 10 kids -- so they receive much less money per site.
The Aliquippa School District relied on volunteers this year to staff its summer food sites because it did not receive enough federal money and could not afford to pick up the slack. Without volunteers, summer food service coordinator Louanne Schmitt said, "We would have had to cut the program."
Some districts have tried to find solutions by creating mobile food sites -- like the Lunch Bus -- which travel to trailer courts and low-income housing sites. Such programs need fewer staff and don't require parents to drive long distances.
But transportation is costly and not covered by the federal government. Last summer, South Side's bus cost $7,000 in driver and per-mile fees.
In rural areas, which often do not have public parks or YMCAs, the responsibility for sponsoring stationary summer program sites is often put onto school districts.
But increasingly tight budgets mean schools are hesitant to take on the expensive programming.
"We're having challenges keeping schools involved," said Christina Winniewicz, regional summer food service coordinator for the Greater Pittsburgh Community Food Bank. "When I talk about this program, [school officials] will ask me, 'Can you tell me I won't lose money?' I have to say to them, 'That's a possibility.' "
Another major impediment to running rural sites is the federal 50 percent eligibility guideline.
"In rural areas, it's harder to simply qualify as a summer food site," said Ms. FitzSimons. "They don't have the same concentration of poverty that you would see in an urban area."
In 2005, a pilot program in rural areas of Pennsylvania lowered the eligibility requirement so that only 40 percent of students had to qualify for free and reduced-price lunches. A study of that program deemed it "highly successful," increasing the number of rural sites by 15 percent. The pilot was discontinued because of funding.
This year, for the first time, none of South Side's schools met the 50 percent requirement. Areas of high poverty, like Harshbarger Mobile Home Park, were too scattered.
The option to become a "closed site" exists if qualifications cannot be met. Sponsors receive per-meal funds only for a set number of children, 50 percent of whom must meet eligibility requirements.
South Side's director of food service, Julie Freese, said the "closed site" programs would have been even more expensive because they severely limit the amount the district could be reimbursed.
Few predict that funding will change soon.
In the meantime, Kim Cassidy, food service director for Central Greene School District in Greene County, thinks she may have found another solution.
One morning last month, when she found out that neighboring West Greene School District had cut its summer food programs, she agreed immediately to pick up their sites. At 9 a.m. that day she had no more money to deliver meals. But by noon, Ms. Cassidy had wrangled a local hospital into contributing and was in the process of finding a second group to donate.
In the past three years, Ms. Cassidy has assembled an army of volunteers, grants and sponsors for Central Greene's program, which now feeds more than 1,000 kids at stationary and mobile sites, including some in other districts that lack programs.
"It's amazing how all these little groups in our community have come together to make it work," she said. "I couldn't get it done without them."
Correction/Clarification: (Published July 2, 2012) A story Sunday implied that parents in Hookstown did not like a rural food program; in fact, they did not like the longer distance their children will have to travel. Also, the program is difficult to maintain but has not specifically been canceled elsewhere.
First Published July 1, 2012 12:00 am