WASHINGTON — A U.S. Department of Agriculture program offering free and reduced price meals in impoverished areas improved participation in 2010 when incentives were applied, the department said.
Kevin Concannon, U.S.D.A. Undersecretary of Food, Nutrition, and Consumer Services, said participation in the Summer Food Service Programs jumped 35% in Arkansas and was up 19% in Mississippi when pilot programs that offered the meal programs per lunch incentives to operate for a greater proportion of the summer.
Assessing the outcome of the program, the department characterized results as “consistent with generally positive impacts from the demonstrations.”

The S.F.S.P. sites operate in low-income areas where at least half of the children come from families with incomes at or below 185% of the federal poverty level, making them eligible for free and reduced-price school meals. The program operates in what the department calls open, enrolled or camp sites. The meals are served free to any child at the open site. The enrolled sites provide free meals to children enrolled in an activity program at the site where at least half of them are eligible for free and reduced-price meals. Camps receive payments for the meals served to children who are eligible for free and reduced-price meals.

“Hunger doesn’t take a summer vacation, and the Summer Food Service Program helps to ensure that disadvantaged children receive the wholesome, nutritious meals they need when school is out,” Mr. Concannon said. “Through these demonstration projects, we hope to find innovative ways to increase access to and participation in this valuable program, to help fill the summer nutrition gap.”

The two pilots, dubbed Enhanced Summer Food Service Programs, were aimed at reducing food insecurity and hunger among children during the summer, when school is out. In Arkansas, a per lunch incentive was offered to S.F.S.P. providers or sponsors to operate longer during the summer. The Mississippi pilot offered new recreational or educational activities at S.F.S.P. feeding sites to attract participation.

The department said other factors in the states, including additional funding used by Arkansas, may have influenced the results. Still, their assessment was generally positive.

“Additional projects, under way this year, will test home delivery of meals and a backpack food program for kids on days when the traditional S.F.S.P. is not operating, as well as household-based summer feeding approaches using the E.B.T. (Electronic Benefits Transfer) infrastructure of SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program) and WIC (Women, Infants and Children Nutrition Program),” the U.S.D.A. said.

The S.F.S.P is one of 15 nutrition assistance programs administered by the Food and Nutrition Service of the U.S.D.A. The department estimates its programs “touch the lives of one in four Americans over the course of a year.”