WASHINGTON -- Arizona's Summer Food Service Program served 1.1 million meals to children in low-income areas of the state last year but still reached only a fraction of kids targeted for the program.
As they gear up for this summer, state officials hope to improve on last year's service, which reached 14.9 percent of the kids who would be eligible for free or reduced-price meals during the school year, the target group for the program.
They have the resources to do better -- the U.S. Department of Agriculture reimburses all meals served by approved sponsors. The challenge is getting the kids to the meals.
"In the rural areas, especially, there are entire towns that don't have a Summer Food Service site, because not all schools are sites," said Brian Simpson, spokesman for the Association of Arizona Food Banks. "There needs to be more of an outreach effort to get more sites on board and more sponsors on board."
A report by the Food Research and Action Center said the number of sites in Arizona fell from 418 in 2012 to 402 in 2013. That report, "Hunger Doesn't Take a Vacation: Summer Nutrition Status Report 2014," also ranked Arizona 24th among states for its ability to reach 14.9 percent of low-income children last summer.
While that was better than the state's 13 percent reach in the summer of 2012, it was still well below the Agriculture Department's goal for every state of 40 percent.
Groups that sponsor the sites include school districts, local governments, camps, private nonprofit organizations and other community organizations. Their meals have to meet USDA nutrition guidelines in order to be reimbursed.
Any child can receive a free meal, although the sites are located in low-income areas to better serve needy children. But location is only part of the battle.
At WHEAT -- World Hunger Education, Advocacy and Training in Phoenix -- officials are working with sponsors and have heightened outreach efforts this summer with fliers, open houses, and website updates.
Tamera Zivic, executive director and chief operating officer of WHEAT, said there are other challenges, too, that are specific to Arizona,
"Heat hits hard," said Zivic, and can keep even hungry kids from coming out to a sponsor site for a summer meal.
That means sponsors have to think about children's access to transportation and about providing air-conditioned facilities for the summer, if they want children to show up.
Simpson said awareness of the program is another factor that significantly affects turnout. Bringing greater attention to the program is critical in order to reach the most children, especially those who are missing out on meals now that school is out.
Mary Szafranski, associate superintendent of the Arizona Department of Education's Health and Nutrition Services Division, said sponsors also have to work harder to make sites more attractive to children.
"Sometimes it isn't enough for our children to be hungry," Szafranski said. "They have to be engaged. They have to be interested."
Szafranski said the state encourages sponsors to be creative when choosing meal sites -- opting for locations near pools or activities -- so that kids will want to come back day after day.
The state Education Department, which administers the federally funded program, works with sponsors to locate sites in areas with high concentrations of low-income children, so that hungry children do not have to travel far to get fed.
"Our goal every year is to increase the number of children who receive the summer food meal," Szafranski said.
The state met that goal last summer, serving an additional 8,000 children compared to the year before -- even though the actual number of meals served fell by 300,000 during the same period.
"The numbers clearly show we are serving more kids," Simpson said. "On the other hand, we are struggling with retention issues, getting kids to come back."
Szafranski is optimistic about this year's program, which she hopes will see a 3 percent increase in the number of meals served this summer.
But location will still be a key factor, Simpson said.
"The more sites that are out there, the more convenient it is going to be for kids to get to them," he said.