Imagine an elementary school on a Friday afternoon: children racing to the bus, excited, making plans for Saturday play. While most relish their two-day break from class, millions of children head home knowing that those days away from school means days away from regular meals.
During the school week, more than 19 million children rely on federally subsidized school lunches. For some children, it's the only regular meal they can count on eating. Because those lunches aren't served over the weekend or during school vacations, many children are left with nothing to eat.
Studies show that children who experience hunger are tardy or absent from school more frequently, and often have difficulty paying attention and lower test scores. After a weekend without enough food, children come to school on Monday morning ill-equipped to focus and learn.
Many Feeding America food banks have established programs to help feed low-income children on weekends when free and reduced-price school meals are not available. Our BackPack Program™ was designed to discreetly send children home with nutritious, child-friendly, easy-to-prepare groceries on Friday afternoons. Last year, Feeding America food banks operated more than 3,600 BackPack Programs that fed more than 190,000 children. But it's not nearly enough.
Each week, Lindbergh Elementary School in St. Joseph, Missouri gets 144 bags of food as part of the Second Harvest Community Food Bank BackPack Buddies program. At a school where 86 percent of the student population is enrolled in the federal breakfast and lunch programs, there are not enough bags to feed all the children in need. Every Friday, the school's Family Involvement Coordinator and nurse are faced with the heart-breaking task of choosing which children will receive weekend food and which will not. They hand out bags according to a child's level of need, serving those facing the most extreme hunger situations first. Once all of the bags have been given out, they must turn the children left waiting away.
Congress is considering a child nutrition bill that presents the opportunity to close gap periods like weekends. Unlike the Senate-passed bill, the House bill includes a provision that will help children access healthy meals during weekends and school holidays. The provision, the Weekends Without Hunger Act (H.R. 5012/S. 3292), provides $10 million annually in nutritious USDA commodities for schools and community-based providers to operate weekend feeding programs in low-income areas. If the bill is passed, the Weekend Without Hunger Act would help us narrow the weekend hunger gap.
On September 30, the current child nutrition bill will expire, meaning Congress has less than two weeks to reauthorize the funding of critical child feeding programs. Important improvements like weekend feeding programs hang in the balance as House leaders work to identify the additional offsets needed to include them in the final bill.
On Tuesday, September 21, Feeding America and three member food banks will host a briefing on Capitol Hill to describe their efforts to feed children on weekends, during the summer, and after school. The panelists will explain how their efforts would be strengthened under key provisions of the House bill if additional offsets can be found to pay for them. The briefing, Increasing Children's Opportunities for Healthy Meals, In School and Out, will take place from 10:30 to 11:30am in 2261 Rayburn. This event is an opportunity to learn about child hunger from people who fight it on the front lines every day. I urge those who can attend to sign up by emailing email@example.com.
It is unacceptable for any child to go without food for even one day. Adequate federal funding for the child nutrition bill will help ensure that no child has to skip a meal simply because school is out.
Follow Vicki B. Escarra on Twitter: www.twitter.com/vickiescarra