Community Offers Meals to Students in Summer

In Washington, D.C.'s Edgewood Terrace community, where more than 90 percent of elementary school students are eligible for free meals, the Beacon House Community Center is trying to fill in the gaps by providing free breakfasts and lunches. A new study estimates that only a fifth of students who get free and reduced meals at school have access to free meals during the summer.

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A piece of fruit, a little box of milk and a hamburger or a slice of pizza; for millions of poor children, the free or reduced-price meals they get at school every day are a steady source of nutrition. But when the school year ends, so do those meals. Many cities are now trying to keep these kids from going hungry over the summer. Washington, DC, is one of the most successful. NPR's Rachel Jones reports.

RACHEL JONES reporting:

It's 9:30 AM, and about 20 second- and third-graders at the Beacon House Community Center have finished their breakfasts of cereal, juice and fruit. Now they're getting ready to learn about nutrition.

Ms. DANITA TUCKER(ph) (Nutritionist): And meat gives us something called protein. So everybody say, `Meat gives us protein.'

Children: (In unison) Meat gives us protein.

JONES: Hot dogs and hamburgers are these eight- and nine-year-olds' favorite source of protein. But nutritionist Danita Tucker isn't getting much support for alternatives.

Ms. TUCKER: Now something else that gives us protein is beans. So how many of us like black-eyed peas?

Children: (In unison) Ewww!

Ms. TUCKER: Well, what about kidney beans?

Children: (In unison) Ewww!

JONES: More than two-thirds of Washington schoolchildren get free and reduced-price meals during the regular school year. The federal government provides millions of dollars to states for summer nutrition programs for children. But most school districts don't have the capability to provide that service during the summer. That's where community centers like Beacon House come in.

Unidentified Woman #1: So that one goes to Randy(ph).

Unidentified Woman #2: That one's heating. That one's heating. This one's heating.

JONES: Reverend Donald Robinson started Beacon House in 1991. Today the genial Unitarian minister with the West Virginia drawl is jiggling the metal coils on the center's electric stove. He's trying to make sure they'll cook the two huge pans of ground turkey, onion, zucchini and spices for today's spaghetti lunch for a hundred kids. As a former teacher, Robinson often saw firsthand how hunger affects children.

Reverend DONALD ROBINSON (Started Beacon House): I went to school one morning. They had two little kids sitting on a curb, and they were eating french fries that somebody had dropped the night before that the rats may have been through.

JONES: Robinson says he quit teaching because he stopped feeling like he was making a difference.

Rev. ROBINSON: All those things just live with me, and I'm saying there's no sense, you know, in kids having to go through all this. So when I got an opportunity, I decided I would try to find a way that--you know, to help these kids, to improve their condition and their lives.

JONES: Any kid in the neighborhood can come to Beacon House for meals, classes and fun and games. Robinson says there's only one requirement: Kids have to learn something every day. They have to read at least 15 books over the course of the summer. Ten-year-old Ayana(ph) says the center is also filling some educational gaps for her.

AYANA: At my school, our science teacher left, and we didn't get to learn that much about science and stuff. Like, I didn't know that it was a group of animals called amphibians.

JONES: Census Bureau estimates that 13 million American children are hungry or live in families with limited access to proper nutrition. And the Washington-based Food Research and Action Center says that in 2003, about 3.2 million children nationwide got free summer meals; that's just one-fifth the number of children who were fed during the previous school year. But tracking those children during the summer months isn't easy. In DC, officials teamed with nutrition researchers, food banks and other advocacy groups.

Rev. ROBINSON: Hey, ...(unintelligible), let's go! What's your--boys...

JONES: It's noon at Beacon House, and the kids are jockeying for position with their red and green plastic trays. Reverend Robinson is helping out on the serving line today.

Rev. ROBINSON: No salad, man? Man, you're going to end up in the hospital, man. Give him plenty of salad, Ben(ph). Give him plenty of salad.

JONES: With every extra spoonful, Robinson says he's banishing the image of those two hungry children sitting on a curb eating discarded french fries. And it's definitely leaving a good impression on these kids.

DORIAN(ph): My name is Dorian, and I'm 12 years old.

Unidentified Child #1: Shhh!

Unidentified Child #2: Be quiet!

JONES: And tell me about the food here.

Unidentified Child #3: It tastes good.

DORIAN: The food is good, and the people that fix it, they really care about us.

JONES: How can you tell they care about you?

DORIAN: 'Cause they fix a lot of food.

JONES: The kids at Beacon House will keep getting breakfast, lunch and a snack five days a week until the end of August, just one week before the public schools reopen. Rachel Jones, NPR News.

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