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Mon, June 24

Goal: No hungry Arizona kids this summer

Arizona served 1.1 million meals to children in low-income areas of the state last summer. That was still just a fraction of the number of kids who qualify for free or reduced-price meals during the school year. (TIFFANY MARTIN/Cronkite News)

Arizona served 1.1 million meals to children in low-income areas of the state last summer. That was still just a fraction of the number of kids who qualify for free or reduced-price meals during the school year. (TIFFANY MARTIN/Cronkite News)

KINGMAN - 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."

In Kingman, Caleb Nez got more than a free lunch Monday when he showed up to eat with his sister at Manzanita Elementary School.

Caleb, 5, was the winner of the first of four drawings for a shiny Razor scooter that the Kingman Unified School District was giving out as part of its summer food program.

The other three scooter drawings, as well as mini-drawing with small prizes, will take place throughout the remainder of the program.

"This was a nice surprise," said Charyl Nez, the boy's mother, who regularly takes Caleb and his 2-year-old sister, Callie Nez, to lunch at White Cliffs Middle School. "This is a good program, and it gives Caleb time to hang out with his friends. He has lunch dates and stays connected to the kids."

The summer program feeds children 18 years and under for free with no questions asked about income or need. Adults can eat with their children for $3 per meal. The cost of the meals, which are prepared at the district's central kitchen and transported to each site, is mostly reimbursed by the Arizona Department of Education at $3.01 per lunch. The district will pay about $1,000 this year to cover costs.

The program has grown this year, said Paula Loomis, director of food services for KUSD, from six school sites and the Boys & Girls Club last year to eight school sites and the club this year. Loomis said White Cliffs Middle School and Palo Christi Elementary School were added this year.

Also, the number of children eating in the program has increased, said Loomis. Last year, about 300 children a day took advantage of the free service. This year, that number has grown to about 500 children a day at the various sites. All the meals are inspected and regulated for carbohydrates, proteins, saturated fat and sodium.

"Out of our school district of about 7,000 children, 69 percent are eating free and reduced meals during the school year," said Loomis, noting that percentage is high in Arizona but not the highest. "So that shows the need here. What do these kids do during the summer? With the economy the way it is, the program has grown. We're definitely pleased to see families using it like they are."

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.

(Miner reporter Kim Steele contributed to this report.)

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