Members of the Alpha and Omega Church knew helping a federal summer feeding program for kids was risky, since sponsors often lose money.
Just the same, program director Catherine Coleman and other church members spent the summer knocking on doors in a neighborhood pockmarked by dilapidated homes and crumbling apartment buildings to let residents know healthy, free meals were waiting for anyone under 19 — those students typically fed by reduced-price or free lunches during the school year.
Participation in the federal Summer Meal Service program at the church grew from fewer than 20 children a day in early June to about 60 by the end of July, though organizers suspect many more in the area still aren't getting the free food.
Nationally, the federal meals are reaching only a fraction of the nation's children who qualify, and government officials and advocacy groups say the recession has placed millions more children at risk of going hungry.
A lack of sponsors — organizations that buy food and train staff to serve — is part of the problem. Limited awareness and infrastructure also contribute to low participation.
"The need is great every year, but particularly this year in this economy," said Jean Daniel, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
According to the Washington-based Food Research and Action Center, only one child of every six eligible took part in the summer program in 2008. The report, released in July, said 16.8 million low-income children received free or reduced price school lunch during the regular school year, but only 2.9 million children got summer food when school was out.
There's been a push to attract more sponsors, but nonprofit organizations, which traditionally run the bulk of feeding sites, also are feeling the economic pinch and the federal reimbursement rate for meals doesn't always cover the cost.
This was Alpha and Omega Church's first year as a sponsor, said Coleman, who went without pay to help cover food costs. Coleman said the church plans to be a sponsor again next year.
All meals had to meet federal nutrition guidelines. A typical meal included milk, two servings of fruit or vegetables and a protein.
The daily breakfast and lunch were a godsend for Audreia Jones' three children — Ashandrieia, 7, Anajiun, 6, and Amariun, 4. Jones, 32, recently became unemployed after working as a personal sitter for the elderly.
"It's really important. Some people have lost their jobs. Some don't even get welfare," said Jones, who also volunteered as a meal server.
The Child Nutrition Act is up for reauthorization, the periodic review of legislation that covers the national school lunch, school breakfast and the Special Supplemental Program for Women, Infants and Children. Advocates are lobbying lawmakers to make changes they think will get free meals to more children.
Senate Education Committee Chairman Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, said his committee will take a closer look at the summer program in considering the legislation.
"Ensuring that our kids have enough to eat during summer months is critically important, especially during these tough economic times," Harkin said in an e-mail. "Unfortunately, despite repeated efforts, the number of children participating in federally reimbursed summer nutrition programs in 2008 was the same as it was 15 years ago."
One proposal supported by the School Nutrition Association would lower the low-income threshold for a community to operate a meal site, said Eric Peterson, spokesman for the group.
Currently, at least 50 percent of the children in a neighborhood must qualify. The association and other advocates want it lowered to 40 percent.
The need is palpable. In South Carolina, the number of meals claimed in June increased by 20,000 compared with the previous year, and feeding sites increased to 756 from 665. Mississippi's feeding sites grew to 321 this summer, up from 214.
The most current government data shows the surge didn't just begin. Figures show Texas, Oregon, Georgia, California and Florida were among the states with a significant increase in meals between 2007 and 2008. Kentucky was one of the few states showing a dramatic decrease during that span.
Paul McElwain, director of Nutrition and Health Services for the Kentucky Department of Education, said many parts of Kentucky are without a public transit system and don't have parks or community centers for feeding sites to set up.
"The budget situation is such that we no longer have school districts that have some sort of extended summer school programs. They can't afford it," McElwain said. "That was always a big place for kids to go and get meals for the summer."