More than half of Louisiana’s public school children get free or reduced-priced meals at school because their families are struggling financially. But when school lets out for the summer, kids still need to eat. And that’s tough on poor families, especially in rural areas.
Dulac, Louisiana, can kind of feel like the end of the world. It’s a community of 1,500 people all huddled along a thin strip of land that disappears into bayous, marsh and finally the Gulf. Because of frequent flooding, nearly every building is raised on stilts - including the local Terrebonne Parish library branch.
Inside, about 20 kids sit around formica tables for “Storytime and Snacks." Some of these kids are from poor families, and some are not - but any kid who shows up for the program gets a free box lunch.
Eleven-year-old Cheyenne is here with her summer camp. She sits down with her friends, opens up her meal and examines the contents.
"Applesauce...crackers, peanut butter, green beans and a milk," she says, laying each item out on the table.
The library can only serve these boxed lunches one day a week during the summer. They serve them in partnership with Second Harvest Food Bank, which works with libraries and community centers cross south Louisiana to feed children. Library employee Kelly Boudwin says it takes staff time to pick up the meals from Houma, drive them the half-hour down to Dulac, set them up, hand them out and clean up. But families need them.
"I do think families struggle during the summer because the kids are home all day, versus when they’re at school they’re eating breakfast and lunch at school," she explains.
Dulac, like many rural areas, has pockets of poverty. Shrimp and oil are the mainstays of the local economy, but prices are way down in both. Dulac is also isolated.
"As you saw coming in here, we have a Dollar General, we have a Family Dollar," Boudwin explains. "But as far as produce and meats, we have to travel 30 minutes just to get, you know, the necessities that we need because we don't have a grocery store any longer due to all the hurricanes."
After every storm, people and businesses move out of Dulac and further inland. Boudwin says that isolation makes getting food on the table extra hard on struggling families. The town's isolation also makes it harder on organizations that provide free meals to kids when school is out.
"In a state like Louisiana, which has a lot of rural areas, it can be more difficult to provide summer meals," Food Research and Action Center Director of School and Out-Of-School Time Programs Crystal FitzSimons says.
During the school year, many kids get lunch and breakfast at school. Those meals are paid for by the federal government through the National School Lunch Program. In the summer community centers, churches and libraries, like the ones in Terrebonne Parish try to fill the gap, and the federal government reimburses them for the meals they provide. The problem is, in rural Louisiana there just aren’t enough centers like these to serve all the needy kids. So this federal money only ends up feeding 6.8 percent of eligible kids in the state each summer. That makes Louisiana 49th in the nation in participation in summer meal programs.
"We don't have enough sponsors and sites to make sure that all the kids have access to healthy meals," FitzSimons says.
FitzSimons says some rural communities have come up with creative fixes, like mobile-meal sites. Without more solutions, she says many rural Louisiana kids may be spending their summers hungry.
Library branch manager Candace Chauvin says she wishes the library could serve kids more than one day a week.
"I think it would be great," Chauvin says. "It has to be something that we feel is reasonable for us because we already have a lot to do during the day - since we are only a staff of one full-timer and part-timer."
And there’s the rub. The federal reimbursement covers just $4-per-meal - not enough to hire more staff, or cover the fuel costs of getting these lunches all the way down to Dulac. That may be one reason there are fewer places serving summer lunches for kids - both in Louisiana and across the country.
As the kids finish up their boxed lunches. Chauvin says she’s happy they can at least provide this one meal, one day a week.
"Because our kids really do depend on these meals," she says.
But she worries about how families are faring on days when the library can’t fill the gap.
Support for WWNO's education reporting comes from Entergy Corporation.