USDA Pushing 'Free' Food: Call '1-877-8-HAMBRE (for Spanish Speakers)'

July 14, 2014 - 11:03 AM

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The USDA has set a goal of serving 10 million more summer meals to children than it served last year.

(CNSNews.com) - The U.S. Agriculture Department has set a goal of serving 178 million free meals to children now that school is out. That's 10 million more meals than were served last summer.

"Admittedly, this is an aggressive goal, and we can't do it alone," Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said in a column posted on the USDA website. "With strong support from individuals, communities, local governments and advocates, we can reach more kids with nutritious meals during their time out of school."

USDA is urging Americans to "help spread awareness of summer meals in your community" by using the National Hunger Hotline at 1-866-3-Hungry or 1-877-8-Hambre (the latter number for Spanish speakers, it notes).

The government offers free summer meals to anyone 18 and under at approved sites in areas with significant concentrations of low-income children. USDA notes that teenagers "face the same risks of food insecurity in the summer, so make sure your teens are taking advantage of free summer meals, too!"

Most summer meal sites are "open sites," meaning they are open to the community and do not require advance sign-ups or even "check-in" at the site. "Children and teens must simply show up to get their meal," USDA says, but the meal has to be eaten at the place where it is served.

Summer meals are available regardless of what other government assistance children may receive; and parents are not required to give any personal information about their children to the meal servers.

Groups that sponsor summer meals programs are urged to advertise them: "Promoting summer feeding sites in your community is one of the most important things you can do to ensure no child goes hungry this summer," USDA says. "The more parents, children, and teenagers know about where sites are located, the more children will come to eat."

One of the printable fliers on the USDA website is titled, "Summer Food Rocks."

USDA's Food and Nutrition Service, which runs the summer meals program, says the benefits go beyond nutritious food for needy kids: The program helps parents "stretch food dollars"; it keeps food service workers employed during the summer; and it provides "safe places for children to go to be with other children and with supportive adults."

Last summer, according to USDA's Economic Research Service, the Summer Food Service Program provided meals to more than 2.4 million children each day at 42,654 sites during the program's peak month of July at a cost of $427.6 million in fiscal 2013.

Congress appropriated $398 million for the program in FY 2012.

USDA reimburses sponsors based on the number of children who get free meals on any given day.