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Providing summer lunches important

Many of us fondly remember our childhood summers as a welcome vacation from school — a time to have fun with friends and spend long hours playing outdoors. For us, summer was typically carefree and idyllic.

Unfortunately, a lot of kids today view summer differently. For them, it’s a season of hunger.

These youngsters rely on the school lunch program for nutritious meals, so when there’s no class, many of them may not have enough to eat.

Nationwide, only about 1 in 7 children in a school lunch program are also fed in the summer, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

In Denton, those numbers run a little better. Kathy Schaeffer, who directs the summer nutrition program for the city, said that last week employees were able to distribute between 1,800 and 2,000 lunches Monday through Thursday. On Fridays through the summer, they aren’t able to reach as many children because some are fed through other summer programs.

When city employees began passing out sack lunches to hungry children around Denton last week at recreation centers, parks and schools, it marked the 20th year that Denton has participated in federal summer nutrition programs.

From now through Aug. 16, employees from Denton’s Parks and Recreation Department will back up four vans outside the Denton High School cafeteria every weekday, load up sack lunches and head out a number of locations around the city where any child between the ages of 1 and 18 can receive a free meal.

City employees are trying to catch as many of the Denton school district’s 11,116 students who are fed in the school lunch program during the year as possible. That’s about 43 percent of the district’s population. If more than 50 percent were eligible for free or reduced-price lunches, the district itself would be required by the state to provide lunches.

A lot of kids depend on the summer lunch program, and if Denton County follows state trends, the number may continue to climb.

In an e-mail, Lindsey Pope, spokeswoman for the Texas Department of Agriculture, said the state saw a 17 percent increase in children participating in the program between 2011 and 2012.

States are reimbursed by the U.S. Department of Agriculture for each lunch distributed, about $3 per child per meal. Denton, in turn, is reimbursed by the state for the cost of the lunches and for the vans the city rents for the summer to provide the service.

The city contracts with the high school cafeteria for the lunch preparation because the employees know how to prepare meals that meet federal nutrition requirements in order to qualify for the reimbursement.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture has targeted Texas and 14 other states to try and serve more children this summer. Although Texas improved its reach last year, ranking 34th instead of 41st in feeding children over the summer, the state missed out on more federal funding for summer nutrition programs than any other state, according to the Food Research and Action Center, a nonpartisan, nonprofit advocacy group.

Texas left $47.8 million in federal funding on the table in 2012, which meant 685,383 children may have gone hungry more than once over the summer.

We should be ashamed that Texas ranked 34th in providing summer lunches for kids and put pressure on state officials to expand this essential program in every way possible.

We understand that political differences have made some state leaders reluctant to cooperate with federal officials, but this is not a political issue.

There’s no excuse for letting kids go hungry, especially when federal funding is available to feed them.