Hollingworth Elementary School

At Hollingworth Elementary School in West Covina, kids don't have to be in summer school to have free meals on campus. (Susannah Kay / Los Angeles Times / June 20, 2013)

Mylene Guzman walked her three daughters through the gate at Hollingworth Elementary School in West Covina straight to the cafeteria. The girls weren't late to summer school classes, nor were they participating in any of the Rowland Unified School District's theater or art programs.

The trio were there for lunch — pizza and cherry-flavored applesauce. Rowland Unified is participating in the federal Summer Food Service Program, which allows Guzman, who lives within the district's boundaries, to feed her daughters for free.

"We don't quite qualify for food stamps, so this helps," Guzman said. "I cook every day for the youngest, but when all three of them are home during the summer, it gets really hard."

More than 18 million low-income students nationwide who eat lunch through the U.S. Department of Agriculture's National School Lunch Program miss out on meals during the summer, according to a study released by the Food Research and Action Center, a childhood nutrition advocacy group.

In California, one in six students who qualify for free or reduced-priced meals during the school year will eat a free breakfast or lunch on campus during the month of July, when many schools aren't in session, the study said.

During the recession, the number of students qualifying for school lunch programs increased to more than 3.3 million in 2012; 200,000 more students than in 2008. But summer programs have not caught up to the trend, said Crystal FitzSimons, director of feeding programs for FRAC.

The Los Angeles Unified School District and other school systems statewide have drastically cut summer school in the last few years, which, as a result, cut free meals for students. This year, L.A. Unified, Rowland and others reinstated their summer food programs at a limited number of schools where 50% of its enrolled students qualify for free- or reduced-priced lunch. The program allows the schools to serve anyone under age 18 food for free when he or she eats it on campus.

But the schools that aren't participating in L.A. Unified's program had to get creative.

Administrators of the Para los Niños charter had to scramble to feed their students lunch and a snack as promised during its summer program. L.A. Unified, which supports the independently run charter's breakfast and lunch during the year, did not extend that for the elementary school's summer program.

The goal of the summer program is to support the young students' literacy development and learning skills, a difficult task when children are distracted by their hunger, said Martine Singer, president and chief executive of Para los Niños. Click HERE for entire story!