For Some Children, Going Back to School Means Getting to Eat

09/09/2010 10:24 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

The clean slate of a new school year presents excitement for most families. As millions of children head back to school, many families are considering new school clothes and book bags; kids are looking forward to getting out of the house and making new friends; and children are wondering if they'll get the popular teacher or the one who assigns a lot of homework.

But for low-income families who struggle to overcome hunger, back-to-school season brings an end to the strain of putting additional meals on the table when the free and reduced-price school breakfasts and lunches are unavailable.

During the school year, free and reduced-price lunches offered through the National School Lunch Program are a vital part of daily nutrition for more than 19 million low-income children. But during the summer months, when school is out, only 2.8 million children access summer feeding programs. A major reason for this gap is the shortage of summer food program sites. There are just 34 summer food sites for every 100 school lunch programs, and many of those sites only operate for part of the summer. Many children who rely on school meals during the school year do not have access to summer food programs in their community. Low-income families struggle to buy enough groceries to make up those additional meals, leaving millions of low-income children without the nutrition they need to grow healthy and strong.

Recently, my friend John Arnold, Executive Director of Feeding America West Michigan, shared a story that truly illustrates the distress that this lack of access to meals causes families in the summer:

A family of three arrived one morning to receive food from one of the food bank's many mobile pantry trucks that deliver food to low-income neighborhoods. The kindergartner and her mother and father were working their way across the truck, choosing the groceries that they would take home when they came upon a pallet of packaged snacks. The little girl's mother asked a volunteer if it would be alright if her daughter ate one right then and there -- the family hadn't had anything to eat in two days, and they just couldn't bear asking their child to wait any longer.

We must act to ensure that every child in America has enough to eat during the summer and every day of the year. As millions of families send their children back to school, grateful for the increased food security that school meal programs provide, there's something we can do right now to make sure those same families don't have to struggle so much next summer. Child nutrition legislation currently awaiting action in the House of Representatives provides a critical opportunity to increase children's access to summer food programs.

A provision in the child nutrition bill drafted by Education and Labor Committee Chairman George Miller would streamline programs that serve children when they are out of school. Often, summer feeding programs are run by community-based providers such as food banks, parks and recreation departments and Boys and Girls Clubs. Many of these same providers also offer afterschool feeding programs for at-risk children during the school year. To serve the same children at the same location, these providers must operate two different programs with two different sets of requirements: the Summer Food Service Program (SFSP) during the summer and the Child and Adult Care Food Program (CACFP) during the school year.

Through a pilot program currently authorized only in California, community-based providers can use one set of program rules to operate both summer and afterschool feeding sites. Rather than having to complete duplicate applications to serve the same child during the school year and during the summer, this "year-round" provision allows these providers to operate their site under the same program all year. The provider can process one application to enroll a child in both programs. Similarly, the provider can follow the same set of administrative rules regarding nutritional requirements and reimbursement rates whether meals and snacks are provided afterschool or during the summer months.

By eliminating duplication, the year-round model results in administrative savings. Existing providers of both summer and afterschool programs can use that savings to serve more children by extending program hours or opening a second program site. For providers who currently only operate one of the programs, the simplification removes an administrative barrier that discourages many of them from offering services year-round. By making it easier for providers to operate both programs seamlessly, the year-round provision increases the number of summer programs in operation, thus ensuring that more of our most vulnerable children have access to food when school is out. The House bill would expand the year-round provision to ten more states, providing the opportunity for greater access to summer nutrition to children in other parts of the country.

Every child in America should have enough to eat regardless of the season -- summer, fall, winter or spring. Children need access to nutritious food year-round, so why shouldn't the programs that serve them be able to operate year-round? With a gap of nearly 17 million children unserved by summer feeding programs, we ought to do everything we can to make it easier for food banks and other community-based providers to reach children in the summer. Passage of Chairman Miller's child nutrition bill is an important first step to making sure no child goes hungry next summer.