FEDERAL WAY, Wash. (AP) — Four days a week this summer, lime green school buses loaded with games, books and computers rumbled through low-income neighborhoods south of Seattle. Their aim wasn't just to entertain kids — but to feed them.
"It's fun here," said 10-year-old Mia Tolo on a recent afternoon outside one such bus, where she played Chutes and Ladders with her friend Anita Velasco after they had pizza, bananas and milk.
Department of Agriculture officials and community leaders cite the rolling rec centers, covered in cartoon frogs, as a novel approach in the federal government's push to get meals to millions more schoolchildren when they need it most.
About 21 million U.S. students receive free or reduced-price lunches during the school year, but only a fraction of them, 3.5 million according to most recent statistics, are fed regularly over the summer.
"That's a drop in the bucket compared to how many need it," said Bill Ayres, executive director of Why Hunger, a nonprofit that works to expand food programs.
In recent years, the federal government has been pushing its spending toward mobile food programs, feeding hungry kids in parks, recreation centers and even their homes. There are now 42,000 sites that provide summer meals, and the 3,000 locations added this year represents the largest increase the program has seen, said Undersecretary Kevin Concannon, with the food and nutrition division of the USDA.
That growth came as Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack announced in June a goal of serving 5 million more meals to eligible youngsters this summer. Government officials said an assessment of that goal won't be available until at least next year, but officials pointed to the thousands of new sites as reasons for optimism.
In Federal Way, Wash., where more than half of the school district's 22,000 children receive free or reduced-price lunches, about 900 students receive meals at summer school programs and community centers. Another 400 were fed from the trio of FRED buses — for fun, read, eat, dream — roaming the city from Monday to Thursday each week.
The program, hailed for its approach, was paid for by about $40,000 in donations and a $34,000 grant from the federal government. Child welfare activists say it will take more such creativity to help additional students.
"We need to innovate," said Bill Shore, who leads Share our Strength, another nonprofit working with the USDA.
Among other programs, the USDA is experimenting with debit cards that give kids up to $60 a month to buy food at grocery stores over the summer. Officials also are encouraging more churches, camps and community groups to start their own meal programs, with federal money paying for setup costs and food.
"The challenge is across the United States, the time of year an American child is most likely to go hungry is the summertime," said Concannon, of the USDA.
The USDA also has worked to improve access by helping parents find summer food programs through a new text-messaging service and a toll-free number.
The Federal Way School District believes its approach — combining activities, technology and food — is something that can become a model for wider use.
"The parents are drawn to the food," said Chrissy Hart, 20, a United Way intern who grew up in Washington state, "and the kids are drawn to the activities."
As Mia and Anita, the rising fifth-graders, played their board game, others gathered at a table to color and read. Some kids, meanwhile, kicked around a soccer ball as others played on laptop computers with Internet access inside the bus.
Jeanette Borchers, who brings her two children to the bus for lunch and stays to help, said the summer program fills essential needs.
"I think it's fantastic," she said. "It really is a good community thing."
Contact Donna Blankinship at https://twitter.com/dgblankinship