Keeping Children Fed When School Lets Out

06/23/2015 08:59 am ET | Updated Jun 22, 2016

By Jilly Stephens and Gail Simmons

The cost of living continues to rise at a significant pace in New York City and poverty is most severe among households with children. According to the Self-Sufficiency Standard Report, 42% of all New York households do not have enough income to meet their basic needs. Because housing and childcare are the two greatest household expenses, families' budgets are often stretched too thin to afford basic necessities like food. The reality is that children throughout our city are hungry. Research studies indicate there is a correlation between food insecurity and children's academic performance. For too many children, their futures are compromised due to hunger - and that is unacceptable.

About one in four New York City children, or nearly 420,000, face hunger. While nonprofits are working tirelessly to alleviate hunger, public schools are quickly becoming the last beacon of hope for hungry kids. Last year, a record 21.7 million children received free or reduced-price lunch, according to the USDA. In New York City alone, 70% of school-age children are eligible for a free school lunch, meaning they live in or near poverty. With public schools about to close for the summer, many of these children who rely on school for the guarantee of two healthy meals per day, may find it even harder to get a good meal.

New York City is committed to feeding children over the summer. Its Summer Meals Program ensures breakfast and lunch continues beyond the academic school year. At sites across the city - public schools, parks, pools, and libraries, even at New York City Housing Authority complexes, children and teens can receive a nutritious breakfast or lunch, for free. Yet, only 160,000 students participated in the Summer Meals Program last year. That means an astounding six out of seven low-income children in New York City who eat a free or reduced-price school lunch during the academic year did not get a free meal during the summer.

The reason? Well, it is complex. With school bus lines shut down over the summer months, many students may not have guaranteed transportation to and from school. Additionally, many don't have caregivers who can take them to and from a Summer Meals Program location. To overcome this and reach as many kids as possible, SchoolFood operates four mobile food trucks in various locations and communities, which include libraries, beaches, parks, and playgrounds. At these spots where kids are most likely to gather, the trucks distribute free and nutritious lunches to all children 18 years old and under. These trucks are providing a convenient and much needed service.

New York City and other cities across the country are doing what they can to help combat child hunger, but the federal government needs to do more. Important federal legislation that supports child nutrition programs like school lunch and breakfast programs is set to expire on September 30. Without a strong Child Nutrition Act, it may be even harder for many of the city's 1.1 million public school children to get nutritious food.

This summer, we must demand that Congress take action on this important legislation. Every child deserves regular access to nutritious, quality meals. At City Harvest, we launched the Feed Our Kids campaign to provide an opportunity for people to take a stand and tell Congress about the importance of school and summer meals, donate food and funds, and spread the word about child hunger. By working together, we can help feed New York City's - and the nation's - kids.

Jilly Stephens is the executive director of City Harvest, the world's first food rescue organization which is dedicated to helping feed the nearly 1.4 million New Yorkers facing hunger each year.

Gail Simmons is the special projects director of Food & Wine magazine and a judge on Bravo's "Top Chef." Simmons is a member of the City Harvest's Food Council.