Summer Meals:

Actions Needed to Improve Participation Estimates and Address Program Challenges

GAO-18-369: Published: May 31, 2018. Publicly Released: Jul 2, 2018.

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What GAO Found

Nationwide, the total number of meals served to children in low-income areas through the Summer Food Service Program (SFSP) increased from 113 to 149 million (about 32 percent) from fiscal year 2007 through 2016. The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) directs states to use the number of meals served, along with other data, to estimate the number of children participating in the SFSP. However, participation estimates have been calculated inconsistently from state to state and year to year. In 2017, USDA took steps to improve the consistency of participation estimates, noting they are critical for informing program implementation and strategic planning. However, GAO determined that the method USDA directs states to use will continue to provide unreliable estimates of participation, hindering USDA's ability to use them for these purposes.

Children eating breakfast and playing ball at summer meal sites

Other federal and nonfederal programs help feed low-income children over the summer to some extent, according to states GAO surveyed and SFSP providers and others GAO interviewed. For example, in July 2016, USDA data indicate about 26 million meals were served through a separate federal program that allows school meal providers to serve summer meals. Some children also received summer meals through nonfederal programs operated by faith-based organizations and foodbanks, though GAO's state survey and interviews with providers and national organizations indicate the reach of such efforts is limited.

States and SFSP providers reported challenges with meal sites, participation, and program administration; USDA has taken steps to address these areas. Specifically, in GAO's survey, a majority of states reported challenges with availability and awareness of meal sites, as well as limited program participation and administrative capacity. National, state, and local officials have taken steps to address these issues, such as increasing outreach and offering activities to attract participation. In addition, 17 states in GAO's survey and providers in the states GAO visited reported a challenge with ensuring meal sites are in safe locations. To address this safety issue, USDA has granted some states and sponsors flexibility from the requirement that children consume meals on-site. However, USDA has not broadly communicated the circumstances it considers when granting this flexibility. Further, some states and sponsors that have requested this flexibility reported difficulty obtaining data to show these circumstances exist, hampering their ability to ensure safe meal delivery.

Why GAO Did This Study

The SFSP, a federal nutrition assistance program, is intended to provide food to children in low-income areas during periods when area schools are closed for vacation. In the last decade, federal expenditures for SFSP have increased as the program has expanded, according to USDA data. GAO was asked to review the SFSP.

This report examines (1) what is known about SFSP participation, (2) other programs that help feed low-income children over the summer, and (3) challenges, if any, in providing summer meals to children and the extent to which USDA provides assistance to address these challenges. GAO reviewed relevant federal laws, regulations, and guidance; analyzed USDA's SFSP data for fiscal years 2007 through 2016; surveyed state agencies responsible for administering the SFSP in 50 states and the District of Columbia; visited a nongeneralizable group of 3 states and 30 meal sites, selected based on Census data on child poverty rates and urban and rural locations; analyzed meal site data from the 3 states; and interviewed USDA, state and national organization officials, and SFSP providers, including sponsors and site operators.

What GAO Recommends

GAO is making four recommendations, including that USDA improve estimates of children's participation in SFSP and communicate the circumstances it considers when granting flexibilities to ensure safe meal delivery. USDA generally agreed with GAO's recommendations.

For more information, contact Kathryn A. Larin at (202) 512-7215 or larink@gao.gov.

Recommendations for Executive Action

  1. Status: Open

    Comments: In March 2019, Department of Agriculture's Food and Nutrition Service (FNS) submitted its 180-day letter and a subsequent response to report recommendations in GAO-18-369. In its response, FNS stated that it anticipates completing an evaluation of how they calculate SFSP participation by summer 2020. GAO will continue to monitor FNS actions to address this recommendation, including the status of its evaluation and steps taken to improve the agency's estimate of children participating in SFSP. GAO will consider this recommendation closed when FNS provides documentation that it has addressed, at a minimum, data reliability issues in the participation estimate caused by variations in the number of operating days of meal sites and in the months in which states see the greatest number of meals served.

    Recommendation: The Administrator of the Food and Nutrition Service (FNS) should improve its estimate of children's participation in the SFSP by focusing on addressing, at a minimum, data reliability issues caused by variations in the number of operating days of meal sites and in the months in which states see the greatest number of meals served. (Recommendation 1)

    Agency Affected: Department of Agriculture: Office of the Secretary: Food, Nutrition and Consumer Services: Food and Nutrition Service

  2. Status: Open

    Comments: In late May 2018, the Department of Agriculture's Food and Nutrition Service (FNS) provided guidance to states regarding changes in policies related to SFSP waivers and demonstration projects and held a webinar to clarify the changes. In March 2019, FNS reported that this guidance and the webinar provided information about participation in the demonstration for exceptional circumstances, which is the means through which FNS had granted states and program providers flexibility for children to consume SFSP meals off-site in areas that had experienced crime and violence. However, the guidance documents do not directly acknowledge that FNS includes areas with crime and violence as exceptional circumstances for purposes of the demonstration, and neither the guidance nor the webinar provided new information about the circumstances FNS considers when granting the flexibility for such areas. GAO will therefore continue to monitor FNS actions to address this recommendation and consider it closed when the agency communicates the circumstances it considers in approving such requests for flexibility with response to the requirement that children consume SFSP meals on-site in areas that have experienced crime and violence.

    Recommendation: The Administrator of FNS should communicate to all SFSP stakeholders the circumstances it considers in approving requests for flexibility with respect to the requirement that children consume SFSP meals on-site in areas that have experienced crime and violence, taking into account the feasibility of accessing data needed for approval, to ensure safe delivery of meals to children. (Recommendation 2)

    Agency Affected: Department of Agriculture: Office of the Secretary: Food, Nutrition and Consumer Services: Food and Nutrition Service

  3. Status: Open

    Comments: In March 2019, Department of Agriculture's Food and Nutrition Service (FNS) reported that it had drafted the report to Congress to meet its statutory requirement summarizing the use of waivers and demonstration projects. FNS also indicated that the report was being reviewed internally, and planned to submit the final report to Congress following that review. GAO will consider closing this recommendation when FNS submits the final report to Congress.

    Recommendation: The Administrator of FNS should evaluate and annually report to Congress, as required by statute, on its use of waivers and demonstration projects to grant states and sponsors flexibility with respect to the requirement that children consume SFSP meals on-site in areas experiencing crime or violence, to improve its understanding of the use and impact of granting these flexibilities on meeting program goals. (Recommendation 3)

    Agency Affected: Department of Agriculture: Office of the Secretary: Food, Nutrition and Consumer Services: Food and Nutrition Service

  4. Status: Open

    Comments: In March 2019, Department of Agriculture's Food and Nutrition Service (FNS) submitted its 180-letter and a subsequent response to recommendations in GAO-18-369. In its response, FNS stated that it plans to address streamlining flexibilities that impact the SFSP and other child nutrition programs in a future regulatory action. GAO will therefore continue to monitor FNS's progress with this rule-making and any other actions taken to address this recommendation.

    Recommendation: The Administrator of FNS should disseminate information about existing flexibilities available to state agencies to streamline administrative requirements for sponsors participating in the SFSP and other child nutrition programs to help lessen the administrative burden. For example, FNS could re-distribute existing guidance to state agencies that explains available flexibilities and encourage information sharing. (Recommendation 4)

    Agency Affected: Department of Agriculture: Office of the Secretary: Food, Nutrition and Consumer Services: Food and Nutrition Service

 

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