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During the summer, students who qualify for free lunches often don't eat them. There's a way to fix that, if only Congress would act.

A whopping 85 percent of Chicago Public Schools students receive a free or reduced-cost lunch at school. It's one of the best tools most U.S. cities have to combat child hunger. But happens when these kids go home for the summer?

It's a question that vexes organizations like the Greater Chicago Food Depository. The group has mapped out the neighborhoods where children are most likely to need food, and they provide free meals at pools, parks, recreation centers, even camps. They've also launched a food truck that stops in the same parts of the city every day (focusing on places with high rates of food insecurity), says Jim Conwell, the organization's communications director.

Still, getting students to the food they need in the summer is an uphill battle. It's hard to educate families about where to go; harder still to get busy, low-income parents to come out, particularly because the federal funding structure for the National School Lunch Program means parents, grandparents or other guardians are not allowed to eat with their children.

Taken together, these factors make it impossible for governments and non-profits to reach all the kids that need help during school breaks. Nationally, only one out of every seven kids eligible for a free or reduced-price school lunch also participated in summer meal programs, according to NoKidHungry.

So what has the federal government done, if anything, to address this?

In 2010, Congress tasked the United States Department of Agriculture with coming up with better ways to feed low-income children during the summer. In response, they developed a pilot program that provided school lunch-eligible families with extra food stamps over the summer for 7,500 children in three states -- Connecticut, Missouri, and Oregon. Participating families receive an extra $50 a month per child to spend on groceries. (Organizations like the Greater Chicago Food Depository get $109 a month per child to provide free breakfast and lunch). The pilot program is still in place, and in 2012, they expanded to Delaware and Washington state.

The program was a big success; officials at the Department say it significantly reduced food insecurity. This year, the USDA will add four more states. They're also testing whether they can provide smaller benefits  -- $25 rather than $50 -- and still see the same results.

But it's not clear this program will ever flourish into full-blown reality. In the past, Congress has been hesitant to provide low-income families with spending money to buy more food. And recently, they declined to extend a measure that boosted SNAP benefits. As The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities reports:

For families of three, the cut likely will be $20 to $25 a month — $240 to $300 a year.  That’s a serious loss, especially in light of the very low amount of basic SNAP benefits.  Without the Recovery Act’s boost, SNAP benefits average only about $1.40 per person per meal.

Congress has to decide what to do with the USDA's findings in 2014, but advocates are already resigned to the idea that they're going to do nothing. "There's no question in many places that [expanded benefits] would be a more effective strategy," says Joel Berg, executive director of the New York City Coalition Against Hunger. "But when it comes to poor people, we have a real double standard. We're afraid to give them money."

"I've never seen a time when Congress is more disconnected from the facts of what works," he says. Passing a bill that provides families SNAP benefits over the summer "would be very difficult given this climate."

Top image: Pressmaster /Shutterstock.com

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