Educators long have known the difficulty of teaching a hungry child. Without proper or even minimum nutritional intake, the focus and concentration necessary to solve problems, be creative or have good recall are diminished significantly.

Which is why schools serve breakfast and lunch daily, and why the federal government reimburses districts for the meals served to low-income children. In Kansas, almost 200,000 students qualify for free or reduced meals.

When school recesses for the summer, the hunger does not go away. Nor does the reimbursement for meals from the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Yet participation rates drop to absurdly low levels. A mere 7 percent of eligible Kansas children take advantage of the Summer Food Service Program, which exists to provide free nutritious meals at approved sites to all children 18 and younger.

The 7 percent rate is the lowest in the nation. In a state that has one in four children living in poverty, it seems incomprehensible -- almost indefensible -- so many miss out on free meals. But the numbers don't lie: Kansas is 50th when it comes to the summer food program.

"Summer is when food insecurity among children increases dramatically," according to Audrey Rowe, USDA administrator for the Food and Nutrition Service.

The Kansas State Department of Education, which administers the program in Kansas, and USDA officials want to increase the participation rate. So does the Kansas Health Foundation, which has invested more than $4 million in school health and wellness initiatives, and also sponsored a summit in Wichita last week to address the problem.

At the summit, USDA announced it wanted to feed 20 percent more hungry kids in 2015. As only 13,000 children ate at Kansas SFSP sites last summer, the goal shouldn't be that much of a stretch.

Until you consider the number of communities that don't have a single site serving meals. The problem is acute in northwest Kansas. KSDE officials told The Hays Daily News there is one site in Ellis County (at Washington Elementary), one site in Russell County and two in Smith County. There were no sites in Cheyenne, Rawlins, Decatur, Norton, Phillips, Sherman, Thomas, Sheridan, Graham, Rooks, Osborne, Wallace, Logan, Gove or Trego counties.

More than 40 counties statewide have no sites at all. Of the more than 350 sites operating last year, more than half were in the state's four largest counties.

That is an extremely large portion of the state, with significant poverty rates, where children who could benefit from the program cannot simply because no sites exist. That needs to change. We add our voice to the chorus encouraging communities to do something about their unnecessarily hungry little ones.

We understand school buildings in small towns shut down to save utility expenses during the summer. Approved sites do not have to be schools. What needs to be found is a facility that can handle food preparation. If the same location can double as the serving site, great. But it isn't required. Food can be brought to where children gather during the summer.

What is needed most of all is a group or organization willing to coordinate the program locally. There are volunteers to assemble, nutritional guidelines to follow, and paperwork to fill out. Most importantly, however, there are children to feed.

Successful Summer Food Service Program communities elsewhere in the state are run by churches, community centers, recreation centers, food banks, medical centers, senior centers, libraries and even schools.

"It can work in a variety of settings," said Peggy McAdoo, assistant director of Child Nutrition & Wellness for KSDE. "It just takes somebody to organize it."

If you know an organization that might be able to take on this labor of love, encourage them to call (785) 296-2276 and ask for McAdoo or Kelly Chanay. Interested individuals also can visit www.kn-eat.org.

To assist any approved site, The Hays Daily News will help publicize locations, hours of operation and other necessary information free of charge. Build it and they will come does not always work with government programs. We vow to help get the word to those who need it.

"No child should grow up hungry in Kansas," said Cheryl Johnson, director of Child Nutrition and Wellness for KSDE.

We couldn't agree more.

Northwest Kansas needs to step up to this challenge. Together, we might not be able to end poverty, but we certainly can address the nutritional needs of vulnerable children whose minds still are developing.

Editorial by Patrick Lowry

plowry@dailynews.net