The number of low-income children fed by the District dropped by 10,000 last summer compared with the previous year because of logistical problems and the city's poor planning, according to a report by an anti-hunger group to be released Thursday.
The study, by the nonprofit Food Research and Action Center, concludes that the city fed 14,848 children in the summer of 2002, down from 24,890 the previous summer. Because the program is federally funded, the reduction in the number of children meant the city lost $580,477, the report says.
More than 42,000 children receive free and reduced-price lunches during the school year, the authors note, raising the possibility that many are not being nourished properly in the summer. Anti-hunger advocates say they want all children who receive free and reduced-priced meals during the school year to be fed during the summer.
"The program's reduction in participation is a huge detriment to low-income children in the city," the report says. "Instead of expanding the program to reach the thousands of eligible children who were not served in 2001, the city dropped summer feeding as a priority and allowed thousands more low-income children to lose what should be their right, to eat during the summer months."
Responsibility for the summer feeding program was passed from the school system to the District's State Education Office, which was created in 2000 to oversee some functions normally performed by states. C. Vanessa Spinner, who is in charge of the office, said the school system's decision to save money by dramatically reducing the number of students attending summer school -- as well as the number of schools that remained open -- contributed to the problem.
"It doesn't feel good to know that there are children who are going hungry," said Spinner, whose office began overseeing the summer meal program in 2001. "Did we do a credible job given the time that we were given and all of the other constraints? I think we did."
Spinner said that her agency distributed food at public housing and other locations because fewer school sites were available. She said officials were working with community groups and others to identify more distribution locations for this summer. The city's goal is to feed about 28,000 children this summer.
The report by the action center, which advocates for expanded access to federal nutrition programs, says the city did not recruit enough sponsors for food distribution last summer and that there were many communities without any sites. It calls for food distribution locations in every low-income neighborhood this summer.
The report also says that organizations that distributed food last summer complained about logistical problems. "Delivery of meals and confusion about paperwork are cited as two noteworthy barriers," the report says.
The center cited problems with "consistent leadership" and said there have been four directors of the division that oversees the summer feeding program during the past 12 months. Spinner disputed that and said that one of those people never completed contract negotiations to assume the job, though she did work as a consultant.
Spinner and anti-hunger activists are scheduled to appear before the D.C. Council's education committee today for a budget hearing, and the committee's chairman, Kevin P. Chavous (D-Ward 7) said he planned to press officials about the summer food program.
"My concern is that they put a system in place that works to the benefit of as many children as possible," Chavous said. "We're looking very closely at how they plan for this summer. There can be no excuses."
Reuben L. Gist, director of advocacy and community outreach for the Capital Area Food Bank, said that many children who do not receive food from the city go hungry or eat food that lacks nutritional value. Citing research linking proper nutrition to academic performance, Gist said that he was concerned about how those students would perform during the regular school year.