Food can be scarce around the Mendoza household during the summer. School food service worker Alina Mendoza loses most of her hours and pay at the same time her daughter stops getting free meals at school.
That's why Mendoza was excited this summer when a federal grant provided money for her daughter and other children to pick up backpacks full of food each Friday from a local elementary school.
The grant was part of $6.3 million the U.S. Department of Agriculture spent this year to try to find new ways of making sure children from low-income families get enough to eat during the summer. Of the 20.6 million children nationwide who receive free or reduced-price lunches, less than one in five get meals when school lets out, according to the USDA.
The agency pays schools, churches and other nonprofits to serve summer meals to children in low-income neighborhoods, but that doesn't always work because many children don't have a way to get there each day, said Crystal FitzSimons, who overseas and studies summer nutrition programs for the anti-hunger nonprofit Food Research and Action Center. In other cases, the USDA hasn't been able to find groups willing to run summer meal programs.
The loss of school meals also hits some families hard because it comes when they are paying more for child care, FitzSimons said.
"Families who are already stretching their dollar to make ends meet find it even harder because now they are having to pay for meals that they don't normally have to pay for," she said.
To address the problem, the USDA has been testing a number of new approaches in Kansas, Missouri and 11 other states. While some grant recipients sent food home in backpacks, others delivered meals to children's homes or served them to participants in arts and sports programs.
Mendoza, 40, a single mom from Topeka, Kan., said she tries to stock up during the school year and stretch her supplies during the summer. But the backpack filled weekly with items such as fruit cups and canned chicken helped.
"Things get really sticky for us until I get back to work," she said. "It made a difference."
On Cape Cod, the local YMCA dispatched a van to deliver breakfasts and lunches, including low-fat milk, locally grown fruits and vegetables, and easy-to-prepare entrees. The meals, delivered two or three at a time, fed 110 children seven days a week.
Many of the children's parents are unemployed or hold low-paying service jobs in the area's booming tourism industry.
Alberta Glover of Hyannis, Mass., was out of work and taking classes until she recently started a job as an assistant in a medical office. Her two children — ages 9 and 13 — received meals.
"The program was a big help," Glover said. "They were getting whole grains, fruits, dairy and vegetables."
The USDA began testing alternative ways of delivering summer meals last year. New data show the number of meals served to children in Arkansas jumped 40 percent from 2009 to 2010 after the USDA began providing an extra 50 cents per meal to entice groups to offer meals for a bigger chunk of the summer.
USDA spokeswoman Jean Daniel said a common problem has been groups shutting down meal programs up to a month before school starts.
In Arkansas, the state also helped in 2010 by providing transportation for welfare families and kicking in extra money so adults could eat with their children.
In Mississippi, the number of meals served increased by 5 percent from 2009 to 2010 after the USDA gave some groups extra money to lure children with educational and recreational activities. The Mennonite Service Center in rural Macon drew — and was able to feed — 50 to 60 children a day with a mix of art, music and sports programs.
Other states — Connecticut, Michigan, Missouri, Oregon and Texas — have piggy-backed on food stamp and other aid programs to try to help hungry children. Arizona and Ohio tested sending food home in backpacks, and Delaware and New York also got grants to deliver food to children's homes.
"Food is a very basic, something that a lot of us take for granted," said the USDA's Daniel. "But a lot of households are struggling. This is a help to keep them on their feet and invest in their kids so they can learn and ... be healthy."