'Hunger Doesn't Take a Summer Break'

Ariana Rodriguez finishes her orange juice at Rolling Terrace Elementary School. This summer, Montgomery County is increasing the number of schools where the subsidized lunch program for children will serve walk-ins.
Ariana Rodriguez finishes her orange juice at Rolling Terrace Elementary School. This summer, Montgomery County is increasing the number of schools where the subsidized lunch program for children will serve walk-ins. (By Linda Davidson -- The Washington Post)
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By Nelson Hernandez
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, June 30, 2009

If Montgomery County weren't handing out free lunches this summer, Ariana Rodriguez might have gone hungry yesterday. But the bright-eyed 8-year-old walked through the Rolling Terrace Elementary School cafeteria clenching an apple in her teeth before she sat down to a meal.

Ariana was one of 13 students at the Takoma Park school to literally taste the fruits of the county's expanding summer lunch program. Like others across the country, the Montgomery school system is attempting to ensure that children from low-income homes receive nutritious food over the summer. Ariana's mother, Maria Rodriguez, said the difficult economic situation leaves parents with dire choices. Even if they feed their children, they can't always afford nutritious food.

"We feel bad because sometimes we have to stop buying their food, what they need, because we have to pay the rent," Rodriguez said, as her son, too, was tucking into a chicken sandwich, chips and orange juice. "It's really hard. Sometimes you feel guilty."

Montgomery officials gathered at Rolling Terrace Elementary yesterday to announce that children will be able to walk into seven schools this summer to receive a free lunch. Last year, just one campus was open for walk-ins. Students in summer programs at more than 120 other locations are also eligible to receive subsidized lunches.

"Hunger doesn't take a summer break," said County Council member Valerie Ervin (D-Silver Spring), chairman of the council's Education Committee, who spearheaded efforts to expand the program.

Although children from low-income homes are entitled to federally subsidized meals year-round, the free or reduced-price meals reach fewer than 20 percent of eligible children nationwide during the summer break. Millions of children pass July and August malnourished and idle, conditions that promote obesity and contribute to the well-documented learning gap between haves and have-nots.

Children in the District and its suburbs eat better than most. Last summer, more than 1.5 million free meals were served to 30,000 children at 404 sites across the region in a rapidly expanding program that reaches almost as many children as are served during the academic year.

A 2007 report by the Food Research and Action Center ranked the District ahead of all the states for the percentage of eligible students reached by summer nutrition programs, based on 2006 data. According to the report, D.C. programs reached 86 percent of those served during the school year. In Maryland, ranked 12th, the programs reached 24 percent, and in Virginia, ranked 16th, 20 percent. Nationally, the figure was 18 percent.

The guidelines for eligibility for free and reduced-price meals are drawn up by the federal government and approved by states. Under Maryland's rules, a child from a family of four qualifies for free meals if the household income is less than $28,665. If the income is less than $40,793, the child is eligible for reduced-price meals.

In Montgomery, one of the wealthiest counties in the nation, demand for meals is increasing faster than ever, School Superintendent Jerry D. Weast said yesterday. He said that about 40,000 of the county's 139,000 students qualify for free and reduced-price meals and that the number is growing. Since January, more than 1,000 students have been added to the meal-subsidy rolls, and over the past year, the number has grown by about 2,400, he said.

"It's trouble in paradise," Weast said. "Food prices have gone out of sight this year. Unemployment has gone from 3 to 5 to 6 percent."

At Rolling Terrace Elementary, children are fed from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. on summer weekdays. A few more than 20 students a day have come to the cafeteria since the walk-in program started serving students June 17. School officials said they expect the number of walk-ins to rise when summer school gets underway, as siblings tag along with the more than 300 students who are enrolled.

It often seemed the youngsters cared less about the meal than the opportunity to see classmates, although some of the younger students ate with such relish that food decorated their faces.

Jeisson Zacarias, 9, an aspiring reporter, thought the meal passed muster.

"You just ask the lunch person to give you food," he said. "It's all delicious."

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