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Appearing in The Washington Post, 2003

Meal Program For Needy Kids Suffers Setback

By Valerie Strauss

The D.C. Black Church Initiative, which at one time planned on opening 100 sites to feed hungry children this summer, has closed operations a month early, delivering another setback to the city's troubled Summer Food Service Program.

The initiative's director, the Rev. Anthony Evans, did not return phone calls, but sources with detailed knowledge of the program said the group never opened more than 17 meal sites and had just eight sites open Friday when it ceased operations because it was losing too much money.

It is uncertain whether the coalition of churches will be able to repay $80,000 advanced by the State Education Office, a D.C. agency that oversees the meals program, to set up its sites. "We're computing that right now to see how much . . . debt they incurred," said C. Vannessa Spinner, who heads the office.

The Black Church Initiative, in its application to the agency, promised to open the 100 meal sites. That number would have been more than the D.C. public school system's nearly 80 sites. The school system traditionally is the program's largest sponsor.

The pullout has raised questions about why the State Education Office expected a new sponsor to do so much in a regulation-burdened, federally funded program. Although first-year sponsors are rarely advanced large sums of money until they prove that they can meet all U.S. Department of Agriculture rules, Spinner said she recruited the initiative because the group has 800 member churches and she thought it could handle 100 sites.

City officials said the initiative's eight remaining locations, some of them sparsely attended, would stay open for one more month under new sponsorship. As recently as this month, Spinner said she expected the initiative to open many more sites later in August, when D.C. summer schools close.

" Things aren't turning out as they should," said D.C. Council member Phil Mendelson (D-At Large), who has been monitoring the summer food program. He said that Spinner "projects a lot of confidence" about the program's success, but that the results are not satisfactory.

The Summer Food Service Program is aimed at ensuring that needy children eligible for free and reduced-price lunches during the school year continue getting meals during the summer. In the past year, 42,210 D.C. schoolchildren qualified for the summer program, based on family income.

According to the D.C.-based nonprofit Food Research and Action Center, 14,848 children were served by the city's summer meal program last year, a 40 percent drop from 2001.

In February, Christopher J. Martin, mid-Atlantic regional administrator for the Department of Agriculture's Food and Nutrition Service, wrote to Mayor Anthony A. Williams (D) to express concern that the percentage of meals had dropped precipitously. He asked for the mayor's "personal commitment" to help improve things.

City records, though, make it difficult to assess the program's effectiveness. A 2003 Performance Contract that Williams will use to assess Spinner's job performance overstates the number of needy children that her office fed last summer and is missing key data. Williams and Spinner signed the document.

Spinner's contract is supposed to list actual performance and targets for improvement for 14 programs run by her office. There is space for data to be shown for fiscal years 2000-2004, but nothing is listed for 2000 and 2001, according to the document. Spinner said that was because she took the job in July 2001.

Independent research by the Food Research and Action Center and other anti-hunger organizations shows that in 2002, participation in all federally funded nutrition programs run by the State Education Office fell by an average of 13.3 percent from 2001.

Gregory M. McCarthy, Williams's deputy chief of staff for policy and legislative affairs who oversees the State Education Office, said Spinner's team has done good work this summer and has improved the program. McCarthy said he was not aware of inaccuracies in the performance contract signed by Spinner and Williams, but that it would be "a cause of concern" if there were.

The document states that the program served 800,000 meals last summer, a number that is not disputed. But the document also says that 31,114 children were served, more than double the number of children cited by Spinner this year at a D.C. Council hearing. Spinner said in an interview that the 31,114 figure may have included children fed in the summer through another federally funded program, but she was unsure how the figure was calculated.

Spinner had set a target of serving 1 million meals this summer. Entering this month, the tally was between 500,000 and 600,000, her office said.

Anti-hunger groups in the city, meanwhile, said they are concerned about comments that Spinner has made concerning hunger in the nation's capital. At a recent meeting with activists, she said there were no really hungry children in the District, which they disputed.

Asked in an interview to describe the city's hunger problem, Spinner said: "The best research we've been able to do says that kids are not going hungry. They are not always eating the right kind of food, but they are eating." She said her office had not found cases of malnourishment in the District -- though in a follow-up interview, she said she plans to do more research on how many hungry children the city has.

The Food Research and Action Center estimates that about 10 percent of D.C. families are considered "food insecure," with many people sometimes going hungry. Anti-hunger activists say it is difficult to pinpoint how many people are hungry, in part because parents don't like to admit they aren't feeding their children sufficiently.

" Hunger in the District does exist, not in the sense of international and Third World hunger, but food-insecure families do exist," said Kim Perry, director of D.C. Hunger Solutions, a project of the center. "We do have families where parents are skipping meals so kids can eat. We do have families where money runs out before the end of the month and they are going without meals. . . . The hunger is very real."

Dorethea Richardson, founder and director of the Montello Child Development Center in the Trinidad area of Northeast Washington, said some of the 70 children she has in her summer program sometimes go hungry at home.

" Some of them don't eat all night," she said recently, as children in her program ate breakfast -- a meal provided by the Capital Area Food Bank as part of the Summer Food Service Program. "They will go home this afternoon, and they might not get any [food] until they come back tomorrow morning. They come in and say, 'I didn't eat last night.' "

© 2003 The Washington Post Company

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