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Federal red tape on subsidized meals called 'nightmare' Only small fraction of eligible children are fed, study says


Thousands of Maryland children who rely on free and reduced-price lunches during the school year cannot get the same meals in the summer because onerous federal requirements keep communities from setting up programs, a national group has charged.

Less than 20 percent of the 144,000 children in Maryland who are eligible for the subsidized meals received them in July 1991, the Food Research and Action Center (FRAC) announced yesterday.

While that percentage compares favorably with the national average of 15.1 percent, the state figure is skewed by the Baltimore program, which is considered one of the better ones in the country. The city program has more than 300 sites, accounts for 85 percent of the meals served in Maryland and reaches more than 25 percent of those eligible, according to Douglas I. Miles, a policy specialist at the Maryland Food Committee.

Mr. Miles said the federal regulations keep more sites from opening across the state, although there are programs in several Maryland counties.

"It's an administrative nightmare, if you want to know the truth," said Susan Tagliaferro, who runs the Baltimore program.

The regulations include:

* Funding rules that require local agencies to set up the food programs with their own money, then apply to the government for reimbursement. In the city, the program costs about $1 million.

* Paperwork that includes daily attendance records and inches-thick applications. A child's name must be checked off the moment a meal is served. According to FRAC, some programs need a full-time employee just to prepare all the required forms.

* Strict guidelines on food, which forbid children to leave a feeding site with even an apple. But this year, for the first time, the federal government is allowing leftovers to be distributed to homeless shelters and soup kitchens.

* An activity requirement that sometimes forces sites to limit the number of youngsters they feed. For example, Mr. Miles said, a program may be able to feed 60 children, but can only supervise 30 in its recreation program. As a result, only 30 children could receive lunches.

Since the program also provides no money for promotion, children and their parents may not know where the sites are.

"We have no mechanism to match eligible children with sites," said Ms. Tagliaferro. "If I went on television and said, 'Every child in Baltimore age 2 to 18 is entitled to a summer lunch, call this number,' we would be swamped."

As a result, Baltimore soup kitchens often see an increase in school-age children during the summer months. At Manna House on East 25th Street, for example, almost 30 children have been showing up for breakfast daily. Other Baltimore soup kitchens have reported similar increases.

For families who rely on school meals during the year, soup kitchens are often the only way to make sure their children get three meals a day.

"It helps out a lot," said Jeanette McIntyre, who brings her 10-year-old son, Keon, to Manna House for breakfast. "Most of my food is dinner food at home. There's not enough in food stamps to eat breakfast, lunch and dinner."

Asked if she knew of a summer food program where Keon could get lunch, as he did during the school year, Ms. McIntyre shook her head.

FRAC is a non-profit anti-hunger group based in Washington. Last year, it released a study indicating that 5 million children under age 12 are hungry every month.

In the current report on the summer feeding program, the group found that Nevada had the lowest participation rate nationwide, 2.1 percent, while Delaware had the highest, 69.5 percent. Other regional statistics include: Washington, 17 percent; Pennsylvania, 23.9 percent; and Virginia, 13.2 percent.

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