By Wendell Marsh
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The United States Department of Agriculture has made it easier for organizations to access funds to feed children in low-income areas during the summer, officials said on Tuesday.
The Summer Food Service Program typically feeds around three million children, about 17 million less than the number who normally get free or reduced-price lunches during the school year, according to the USDA.
In an effort to increase that number, USDA has been working with non-profit organizations and businesses over the last six months to spread the word about the available program and to identify new partners.
"As school programs are reduced in the summer, we lose those reliable institutional sites," said USDA Under Secretary for Food, Nutrition and Consumer Services Kevin Concannon on a conference call, noting the National School Lunch Program is mostly administered through schools during the school year.
"We've eased some of the regulatory burden associated with the program so that more sponsors can come in," Concannon said.
Those sponsors include organizations such as the Boys and Girls Club of America, religious institutions, and state and local agencies.
The windfall comes at a time when state and local budgets of entities that would normally sponsor such feeding sites have dried up, according to James Weill of the Food Research and Action Center, an advocacy group on hunger issues.
According to a FRAC report also released on Tuesday, the number of students in the summer food program dropped 90,000 since July 2008, even as the number of children receiving food aid in other federal programs has risen by about a million a year since the start of the Great Recession.
"Some important recent changes are cutting important red tape and making it easier for nonprofits and schools and local government agencies like parks and (recreation) departments to operate summer food programs," Weill said of the USDA food programs. "These are important steps forward," he said.
Under the SFSP, meal providers in approved areas feed children and then invoice the government at a predetermined rate for meals that include breakfasts, lunches, and snacks.
Last fiscal year's reimbursement tab was $315 million. A spokeswoman said that there was not a specific goal for this year's program but that the present awareness campaign hoped to reach as many eligible children as possible.
(Editing by Jerry Norton)