United States Senator, Bob Casey, speaks at a press conference about the Summer Food Service Program in Allentown.

More than 40,000 children across the Lehigh Valley are eligible for free lunches over the summer as part of a federal program designed to combat hunger.

Less than 10 percent of those children are taking advantage of it.

U.S. Sen. Bob Casey visited the Allentown YMCA and YWCA on South 15th Street on Monday to call attention to the fact so few families are participating in the federal Summer Food Service Program.

Casey said roughly 71,000 meals or snacks would be served in Lehigh County this summer, and about 74,000 in Northampton County.

"That's a good number," the Democrat said. "But I'm sure there are some we're missing. If children don't get enough to eat, they're not going to learn at the rate they need to learn."

Statewide, nearly nine out of every 10 children eligible for the program aren't participating.

Casey's staff said that there are 56 sites in the Lehigh Valley that offer the free meals. Parents can find those providers by going to pasummermeals.com or by calling 1-866-3HUNGRY (1-866-348-6479) or 1-877-8HAMBRE (1-877-842-6273). That includes 28 sites in Allentown, 15 in Bethlehem, eight in Easton and five in other municipalities.

Jim Finchum, executive director of the Allentown YMCA and YWCA, understands the importance of having well-fed children.

He said the YMCA provides meals to all of the children it serves as part of a summer program. That's typically about 75 children daily.

"When kids are hungry, that affects their behavior," Finchum said. "It affects their self-awareness." For some children the anxiety and stress over where their next meal will come from leads to behavioral issues, he added.

Finchum was speaking in a cafeteria where more than 70 children were opening up their free boxed lunches, which on Monday included a pepperoni and cheese wrap and an orange, in addition to milk. The daily lunch typically includes carrots.

There are two ways in which participating sites offer the free lunches. Summer programs such as camps typically accept applications verifying income. There also are programs such as the YMCA, which offer free meals to all children if at least half of those enrolled are eligible for free and reduced lunches during the school year.

And the number of students eligible for that kind of in-school assistance has continued rising. About 44 percent of the nearly 100,000 public school students in Lehigh and Northampton counties qualified this school year for free and reduced-price lunches. That's up from about one-third in 2007, according to a recent Morning Call analysis of state Department of Education records on free and reduced-price lunches.

The biggest poverty spikes have been seen in traditionally more affluent school districts.

Children from families with incomes at or below 130 percent of the poverty level — $23,850 for a family of four — and children in families receiving food stamp benefits are eligible for free lunches. Children in families whose income is between 130 percent and 185 percent of the poverty level are eligible for reduced-price lunches.

"This isn't just a nice thing to do," Casey said of the free lunch program. "It's the right thing to do."

patrick.lester@mcall.com

Twitter @plester6

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Free lunch program

For information on free lunches through the Summer Food Service Program, go to http://www.pasummermeals.com.

To find program participants, visit the website or call 1-866-3HUNGRY (1-866-348-6479) or 1-877-8HAMBRE (1-877-842-6273)