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Jun 19, 2011 2:40 PM by Chris Welty

Lack of Hungry Closes Program

ALEXANDRIA, La. (AP) - The federal program that has offered free
meals for decades to school-age children during the summer break is
suffering a gradual demise in Rapides Parish because of low
participation.
Two locations of the 33 in Rapides Parish have been shut down
because of low turnout, according to an official with the Rapides
Parish School District's food and nutrition program, which oversees
the sites.
The Town-Talk reported on Sunday that the two distribution sites
closed were at Julius Patrick Elementary School in Alexandria and
another that served the town of Cheneyville.
"If it continues the way it is, it won't exist anymore," said
Bretta LJutz, the district's nutrition health coordinator. "Every
year the number of sites that I can open drops, so eventually the
program will phase itself out because of lack of participation, and
I don't understand why."
The Summer Food Service Program was established in 1968 with the
goal to provide nutritious meals and stamp out hunger during the
summer break when schools are out. The program, which runs locally
from June 1 through June 30, offers free breakfasts and lunches to
children 18 or younger at various schools, churches and other
organizations' sites.
Though it was once a popular program in the community, officials
said they have seen a dramatic decline in participation over the
past few years.
"We used to run it through August, but over the years
participation got so low it was not feasible for us to continue to
operate" once summer school adjourned, said Erma Davis, the
district's Food and Nutrition Services director.
Summer school is the only thing saving the program from
extinction right now, and it's helping the $300,000 program break
even.
LJutz said the site in Cheneyville, where local officials had
high hopes to make it a successful program, began with about 37
children when it opened earlier this month, but now is down to
seven children. The Julius Patrick site has not served anyone for
breakfast and has had only a handful of participants for lunch.
The number of meals provided so far this year is dramatically
lower than the number in 2010, LJutz said.
Officials said they have not been able to pinpoint the exact
reason for the decline, but some reasons they have heard include
families saying they don't want their children getting up too early
during the summer break, that the locations are too far away from
their homes and the perception that the program is only for
low-income children, which it is not.
In the past few years, Davis and LJutz said their office has made
several attempts to boost participation, including providing
transportation to the sites, but even then the numbers did not add
up.
"We didn't make enough money to cover gas money or pay the bus
drivers, but we thought that if we could get enough kids to
participate, we could make enough to break even," LJutz said.
Davis said each location is established in areas that need
services the most and in a central location to make it easier for
families to walk, such as the Cheneyville location.
Officials said there are no questions asked about income level
to those who want to take advantage of the program, and the only
stipulation is the age restriction.
"All they have to do is show up and eat," said LJutz, extending
an invitation to any child to participate.
Officials said the menus offered include healthy choices, as
required by federal standards. They said Rapides Parish already is
offering meals under federal guidelines that will be in place by
2014, such as the amount of meats, grains and fresh fruit that make
up a healthy choice.
For information or to apply to become a distribution site, call
(318) 442-0910. Applications for summer 2012 will be accepted in
January and February.

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