More than 1,000 youngsters may go without free lunches this summer because of new regulations that exclude most church- and community-sponsored day camps and recreation programs from receiving federal funds through the Summer Food Service Program.
The rule, which has left several area groups looking for alternative ways to feed hungry kids at noontime, also has forced the cancellation of one of the city's most popular summer youth sports programs.
Howard University announced last week it would not be able to sponsor its National Youth Sports Program because it was unable to qualify for the federal program this year. Its program was scheduled to begin this week with an enrollment of 500 city youngsters aged 10 to 18.
For the past 12 years, Howard's program, which requires that a well-balanced meal be served at no cost, has provided more than 8,000 area youngsters athletic training and classes on topics such as drug abuse, citizenship and careers. Eight other area groups are unable this year to receive or be reimbursed for free lunches.
Still eligible to receive the free meals are summer programs sponsored by local governments, public and nonprofit private school food services like those in the National School Lunch Program and public and nonprofit private residential summer camps.
In the District, Columbia Heights Youth Club and day camps like those at the Tabernacle Baptist Church, the Northwest Settlement House and the National City Christian Church have been lopped off the free lunch list. However, officials in the D.C. School's Food Services Department, which operates the federal program locally, said free lunches are still available at local schools. That means the programs now ineligible for funding can bring their students over to the schools for a free lunch.
"Even though the sponsors are ineligible the meals are still there," said food program specialist Barbara Smith. "It just takes a little effort."
Smith said free lunches will be served at 18 D.C. public summer school sites throughout the city. Smith said that during the two weeks remaining in July more than 5,000 lunches would be served. Smith said the schools will have excess meals that will be available on a walk-in and phone-in basis to groups such as those cut from the program.
"We hope we won't have a child to come and not be able to get a meal," Smith said.
Several of the groups cut from the program said they are either not near a summer school site or could not walk large groups of children back and forth, however.
"We have three schools in the area and I don't know of any of those schools serving any free lunch," said Katie Dines, day camp director at Tabernacle Baptist Church on Division Avenue in far Northeast.
Artie Hellner, director of a free community summer activities program at the National City Christian Church downtown, said the church congregation will pay the $2,500 needed to provide lunches this summer.
At the Northwest Settlement House, camp director Guy Jones said he is negotiating with the McDonald's Corp. for free snacks, but in the meantime he has told his youngsters to bring their own lunch. The camp, which serves up to 75 youngsters a day, had in the past been a central provider of free lunches to more than 400 youngsters in other summer programs within the Shaw community, according to Jones. "This just means they will all have to be responsible for their own lunches," he said.
The loss of a free lunch means more than just having to brown-bag it, however. For many city youth, hit by teen-age unemployment and cutbacks in recreation services, it has left more uncertainties for those who expected to spend the next six weeks swimming, dancing, playing softball and tennis and learning karate and gymnastics at Howard University.
The same kinds of activities will be offered at the University of the District of Columbia, which also conducts a NYSP program. However, UDC sports program director Lucille Hester said that program, housed at the old Mount Vernon Square campus, is already at capacity with 350 students. Hester said students wanting to transfer from Howard's sports program to UDC's have called and been placed on a waiting list.