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Some summer feeding sites to close early

(Published July 31, 2000)

By RACHELLE A. JONES

Staff Writer

Fifty-four summer feeding sites operated by D.C. Public Schools will close Aug. 4, leaving children with even fewer options in a summer feeding program that a deputy mayor recently described to city council members as in "shambles."

Feeding sites that seem to be serving the greatest number of children are not among the 35 school-based sites remaining open, said Reuben Gist of the Capital Area Food Bank. He said notification of site closings and changes should have been given to children much earlier.

Gistís criticism of D.C. officials for poor management of the cityís Summer Feeding Program goes beyond the early closings of sites. Despite promises to improve program publicity and access to feeding sites from the cityís dismal performance last year, he said that not every feeding site is open to all children, many needy children were not adequately informed of the federally funded programís sites, and those who are eating at sites are not being given palatable, quality meals.

Deputy Mayor Carolyn N. Graham, whose office took over the program at the last minute, contends that the D.C. government is vigilant in ensuring the programís success. "We are committed to providing nutritious food to every child wanting in this city," she said July 6 before the D.C. City Councilís education committee during a hearing at which she also described the programís chaotic operations. Grahamís office, which focuses on administration of the cityís human services programs, assumed management of the 2000 program after D.C. Public Schools refused to handle that function just two weeks before it was scheduled to begin.

Two hundred twenty-four sites, including 132 participant sites sponsored by the Department of Parks and Recreation, the nonprofit Friendship House, and Capital Area Food Bank are serving D.C. children daily meals this summer. DCPS has operated 89 sites, of which 35 will remain open through Sept. 1. The recreation department sites will be expected to absorb children from those sites that close early, city officials said.

Parks and recreation department sites are open daily with what officials are calling "non-traditional hours," as breakfast is served at 10:30 a.m. and lunch between 2 and 4 p.m. This allows children "not involved in summer programs or summer school an opportunity not to have to get up as early as 8 a.m. to eat," said Neil Rogers, the recreation departmentís chief interim human resources director.

Because most program sites have not yet compiled estimates of children using the summer feeding program ó and officials do not expect to have that information until reports are compiled after the program ends in August ó food bank staff have been monitoring each feeding site to gather meal counts and feedback from children and food service workers.

As of July 13, Friendship House was serving between 13,500 and 15,000 lunches a day and 6,000 breakfasts; DCPS sites serve 17,000 lunches daily, according to food bank estimates.

Initial information about food sites was spread by flyers, a hotline, Metrobus banners, a Web site and bilingual posters, which Graham said gave "widespread notification of feeding sites." These methods, with additional television advertisements, take-home flyers, and what Graham told the council committee is "all the means at our disposal," will publicize the August program changes.

Unfortunately, said Gist, it is not enough to reach the children most in need of the food services. "You would think that if you have a captive audience most of the year, you would get information out before the last day of school," he said, adding that DCPS did little to notify its 70,000 schoolchildren.

The Summer Feeding Program hotline, run by Capital Area Food Bank staff, can be reached at 639-9770. It provides callers with updated information about the nearest feeding sites and serves as a troubleshooter for program participants and sponsors with complaints or concerns. Groups interested in sponsoring a feeding site can also call the hotline.

Although the feeding sites continue to serve all children meals, the full program cost is not covered by federal funds because "closed" sites that feed children not in summer programs are not eligible for reimbursement. Friendship House and the Department of Parks and Recreation have taken the initiative by voluntarily opening their sites to all children 18 or younger, regardless of the sitesí "open" or "closed" designation.

"Theyíre going to eat the cost of that (extra meals) so that all kids can eat," said Gist.

Copyright 2000, The Common Denominator