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The number of children in Lincoln who ate meals through the federal summer food service program increased last year, following a national trend but bucking statewide numbers that decreased slightly.

Also this year, the number of sites where children can go to get breakfast and lunch in Lincoln jumped from an average of 30 over the past decade to 36.

“A lot of that goes back to our community partners,” said Mike Heyl, the Lincoln-Lancaster County Health Department’s public health educator and coordinator of the summer food program in Lincoln. “The community learning centers, the Salvation Army, the (city) Parks and Recreation Department, those agencies are the ones that are there every day for the kids.”

In Lincoln this summer, kids can walk to a small park near 40th and Adams streets for breakfast or lunch, then get in a little organized physical activity thanks to a grant from the city’s Parks and Recreation Department. For the third year, mobile sites are set up each day at two low-income apartment complexes and a trailer park. And kids can walk to sites at schools, churches and other groups that offer lunch and breakfast.

Lincoln’s program has grown dramatically in the past decade: from average daily participation of 777 in June of 2002 to 2,100 in June 2012. Average daily participation last year was up slightly to 2,168, Heyl said.

The program is designed for low-income students eligible for the free- and reduced lunch program, although at Lincoln’s sites they’ll feed any kids who show up. The vast majority, Heyl said, are low-income children because the sites are located in areas where school poverty rates are often 85 to 90 percent.

Nationally, participation in the program has decreased during the recession. Last year, the program saw the first substantial increase in a decade, according to a study conducted by the Food Research and Action Center.

The decrease during the recession occurred because of funding cuts to summer programs, according to the report.

But in 2013, participation increased 5.7 percent over 2012, and nationwide the program served 161,000 more children — totaling nearly 3 million, the center said.

The increase, according to the report, occurred because of a concerted effort by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which administers the school and summer lunch programs, along with the center and other agencies.

The Food Research and Action Center, a Washington-based nonprofit that works to improve public policies and public-private partnerships to eradicate hunger, said even with the increase, just 15 of every 100 low-income students participate.

Last year, participation increased in 32 states — including 12 states that saw increases of more than 10 percent.

Nebraska was among 19 states where fewer students participated in 2013, the report said.

Average daily participation statewide went from 10,998 to 10,683 between 2012 and 2013, a decrease of 2.9 percent. Participation in the free- and reduced lunch program also decreased slightly statewide, according to the report.

More concerning, according to the advocacy group Nebraska Appleseed, is a 29 percent drop in the number of sites offering summer lunch and breakfast. The number of sites decreased from 225 in 2012 to 160 the following year. The number of sponsors also dropped from 64 to 54.

Heyl said Nebraska’s participation is lower because so much of the state is rural, and low-income students in rural areas have to travel farther to get to the sites so there are fewer of them.

“The reason Nebraska lags behind as a state is one word and it begins with 'R,'” he said. “Rural. Lots of school districts with 50 percent or greater (students living in poverty) won't get kids to come in from the fields to get a free breakfast or lunch, because they’re working on farms or ranches trying to help out their families,” he said.

No one from the Nebraska Department of Education, which oversees the program, could be reached for comment or to provide participation and site numbers for this year.

But in Lincoln, organizers believe sites should be located in the neighborhoods and schools where the most low-income students live, so transportation isn't a barrier, Heyl said.

Because of that, he said, Lincoln's participation rate of about 21 percent of low-income students is nearly double the national average.

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Education reporter

Margaret Reist is a Lincoln native, the mom of three high school graduates now navigating college and an education junkie who covers students, teachers and policymakers inside and outside the K-12 classroom.

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