Mayor Anthony A. Williams announced yesterday the start of the annual D.C. Free Summer Meal Program, which aims to serve at least 30,000 children.

During the school year, children from low-income households are entitled to free or reduced-cost meals through the National School Lunch Program, and the summer program ensures that the federally funded service continues year-round. Last summer, 1,169,384 meals were served to more than 25,000 D.C. children, according to the city's State Education Office, which administers the program in the District.

"Together we are reversing the devastating consequences of poor nutrition," Williams (D) told about 50 people, including program sponsors, children from Bruce-Monroe Elementary School and parents who gathered at King Greenleaf Recreation Center in Southwest Washington for the announcement.

"Hunger in our city is a very serious problem, particularly for our children," Reuben Gist of the Capital Area Food Bank said at the event. One-third of the District's children live in poverty, putting them at risk of going hungry and making the Free Summer Meal Program vital, he added.

The District's meal program provides two free meals daily to any child under 18 and up to three free meals daily to eligible children at pre-approved summer camps. The food, which meets federal nutritional standards, will be served at about 300 sites across the District from June 22 to Aug. 31.

Last year, the District's summer program served 66.1 percent of the National School Lunch Program participants, the highest percentage in the nation, according to the Food Research and Action Center.

Two years ago, the city's summer program encountered distribution problems, site closures, a site shortage and a decline in the number of children served, about 10,000 fewer than in 2002.

Since then, the situation has improved. There are more sites, the application process for sponsors has been streamlined and outreach has increased, said Kim Perry, director of D.C. Hunger Solutions.

To promote the program, the city is using radio spots, postcards, mailers to every D.C. household, fliers at food stamp locations and media advertisements, said John Stokes, director of marketing and communications for the city's education office.

The majority of the program sites are run by the Department of Parks and Recreation and the D.C. Public Schools, which contract with Preferred Meal Systems to provide the food. Churches, summer camps and other nonprofit organizations in poverty-stricken areas of the city also run sites and receive reimbursements for food purchased from a vendor of their choice, Stokes said.

Children lined up after yesterday's speeches to devour free meals of turkey on a hamburger bun, an apple, juice and chocolate milk.

"If our children can't reach their full potential," Williams said, "then our society can't reach its full potential."

To find a site for the summer meal program, call 202-463-6211 or check online at