Let’s be clear, it is good public policy to spend tax dollars making sure needy children get the nutrition they need to grow into happy, healthy and productive adults.
So it’s no surprise the Summer Food Service Program has been funded by Congress.
Yet, the way the program is structured is a clear failure and needs to be severely overhauled or eliminated in favor of a completely different approach.
In the fiscal year that ended July 1, the program spent $398 million trying to provide nutritious meals to children in low-income families when school is out for the summer. It failed miserably.
In Washington state just 9.8 percent of children eligible for free and reduced-price school meals actually eat them. Washington state has one of the lowest participation rates in the Summer Food Service Program, but nationwide the numbers are not a whole lot better with a participation rate of 17 percent.
So what’s the problem? According to an article in The Seattle Times, lack of awareness about the program and lack of transportation to the lunch sites are among the reasons for low participation.
As a way to overcome those problems in the Seattle area, United Way of King County has launched a two-year, $500,000 outreach campaign called One Million Meals. This includes sending 37 members of the national poverty-fighting program AmeriCorps VISTA (Volunteers in Service to America) to help at some of the 243 lunch sites around King County by spreading the word. Campaign volunteers put up fliers and door hangers, make announcements at churches and contact day camps, according to The Times.
Officials at the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which administers the program, are frustrated.
“Although our National School Lunch Program is serving more than 21 million children during the school year, we are only serving 3 million children through SFSP, so clearly there is still a long way to go in reaching all the children who are eligible for this program, and we need everyone’s help to pitch in,” says a post on the USDA blog.
While the intentions of all involved are good, the effort is spectacularly misguided.
When more than 90 percent of those eligible (or even 83 percent) are not participating, boosting awareness is not going to do the trick. It is time to start over.
Simply throwing money at problems is rarely, if ever, the answer to complex social problems such as this.
Nearly $400 million can — and should — be spent actually helping people who need and want help.