The challenge, she said, is to get the meals to qualified children even if they are not attending summer school.
‘‘After summer session ends, kids are not going to walk into an empty cafeteria,'' Harrington said. ‘‘Direct service providers, county officials and district food service staff need to work out ways to reach kids, putting the food in parks or other areas where the kids are.''
She suggested having some kind of mobile summer unit, like an old recreation vehicle, to make multiple deliveries every day. Harrington said Imperial County does better in its breakfast programs, although fewer than half of those children qualified get the meals.
She said 89 percent of Imperial County schools offer breakfast service, a number that ‘‘is something to be commended.'' But participation in breakfast programs is only 43 percent. That is close to the state average of 41 percent.
The Food Research and Action Center, a Washington anti-hunger group, said California ranked 27th in providing free or reduced-price school breakfasts. The center's report, released earlier in the week, measured the impact of breakfast and summer meal programs by comparing them with state numbers for the national school lunch program.
For every 100 students participating in the free and reduced-price school lunch program, 40.5 students in California received free or reduced-price breakfasts during the 2000-2001 school year, compared with a national average of 42.8.
That compares with the highest-ranked state, West Virginia, which had a ratio of 56, and the lowest, Wisconsin, with a ratio of 23.
Both Harrington and the food research center urged the Imperial Valley and California as a whole to raise their participation levels for the breakfast and other programs to 55 percent so the state would be eligible for more federal education money that could potentially help expand the programs.
The Food Research and Action Center report stated that if California can raise its ratio for breakfast programs to 55 percent or increase by 289,083 the number of students who receive free or reduced-price breakfasts, currently at 805,705, the state could receive an additional $51.7 million in federal payments.
To raise participation in the breakfast program, Harrington suggested that Imperial County schools ‘‘incorporate breakfast into the school day'' by bringing trays to the classroom or having a morning recess when children could eat breakfast.
Roxann Stapleton, food service coordinator for El Centro's elementary schools, said policy centers such as the California Food Policy Advocates have a different perspective from people working in schools.
For example, she said, during the summer the schools can only reasonably be expected to feed children enrolled in summer school or who come to the four sites open in the summer.
‘‘In the summer, sites are open and neighborhood kids can come, but they're usually only the younger brothers and sisters of those enrolled,'' Stapleton said.
However, in the past the El Centro Elementary School District has worked in conjunction with the city parks department to feed children enrolled in summer school and recreation activities like swimming and soccer, she said.
As for increasing participation in breakfast programs for needy children, Stapleton said, ‘‘breakfast is a horse of a different color. Just because children make a choice not to participate doesn't mean they're not getting a healthy breakfast. They're just choosing to eat at home. Lunch is a totally different thing.''
For Patrick Bandiera, director of food services program for the Calexico Unified School District, there's really no room for increased participation in his section of the Imperial Valley. He said all 8,400 students at the 14 nutrition sites in the Calexico district receive free breakfasts, lunches and, in some cases, after-school snacks under a special government provision for low-income areas.
Stapleton estimated that 80 percent of the 6,500 students in her district take part in some kind of meals program.
‘‘These programs are very important resources for families here,'' she said. ‘‘We have the largest unemployment rate in the state and we have a very high migrant population and a lot of people in Imperial County live below poverty levels.''
She said even more students participate at the more rural schools in Imperial Valley where ‘‘you really have a captive audience. … When there's not a Jack in the Box in the neighborhood.''