Summer is usually imagined as a carefree time for children and families -- a lazy, relaxing season filled with cookouts, backyard picnics, and trips to the ice cream truck. We don’t usually equate “summer vacation” and empty stomachs. Did you know child hunger and food insecurity often peak in the summer? Hunger and poor nutrition are linked to health, mental health, and dental health problems and poor educational outcomes that don’t end when summer starts. At a time when food insecurity in this country is so high, an overwhelming majority of children who receive free or reduced-price meals at school aren’t as lucky once school lets out. As the Food Research and Action Center (FRAC) explains:
The federally-funded Summer Nutrition Programs, which provide nutritious meals and snacks to low-income children during the summer months, are falling increasingly short of meeting the needs... The limited reach of the Summer Nutrition Programs meant that for the majority of those children, the end of the school year was the end of the healthy, filling meals on which they counted.
Public and private nonprofit schools, local governments, National Youth Sports Programs, and private nonprofit organizations that serve eligible children can all participate in one of the two Summer Nutrition Programs -- the Summer Food Service Program and the National School Lunch Program, which continues to serve children in summer school programs. But according to FRAC, in July 2010 just 2.8 million children received lunch through the summer programs on an average day -- which was only 15 children for every 100 low-income children who received lunch on an average day during the 2009-2010 school year. By that measure of need, only one in seven children who needs summer food is getting it.
As FRAC president Jim Weill explains, one of the biggest barriers is that although many kinds of programs are eligible for funding there simply aren’t enough programs available to serve all the children who need them. FRAC points out that the continuing fallout from the Great Recession has only made this worse as budget cuts have led many communities to slash funding for summer schools and summer youth programs making opportunities for providing summer meals even more limited. Some of the programs that do exist don’t run for the whole summer, and there also aren’t enough eligible programs providing robust activities and services in addition to meals that draw families in. Adding programs and services and keeping sites open longer could both reduce childhood hunger and help many communities create desperately-needed jobs -- a win-win. This should be a priority in communities across the country.
Even where summer feeding programs are in place there isn’t always enough outreach to let all eligible families know about them. That was one of the obstacles Harvard Kennedy School student Tarah Barzanji found when she recently conducted research for the Children’s Defense Fund on the Summer Food Service Program. There are other challenges. Summer feeding programs tend to be available for shorter and more irregular hours than a regular school day which limits participation. Transportation often isn’t provided, so making these programs available where hungry children are is important. Some programs have had success providing mobile meals which can be especially helpful in rural communities.
Many organizations that provide summer activities for children may not even realize they’re eligible for funding to serve meals. Others find they would be able to participate with just a little help from local foundations or community donations to cover extra expenses like refrigerators or coolers. Sometimes the amount of paperwork required to run a site is a barrier. Small programs may have special difficulty running sites -- for example, a church-based program serving fifteen children may not have the same infrastructure as a school running a summer school lunch program. These kinds of obstacles shouldn’t be standing in the way. We should be using the Summer Nutrition Programs as effectively as possible enabling many more sites to provide meals for needy children this summer -- and helping many fewer children to go hungry.
How is your community helping hungry children this summer? Encourage civic and philanthropic leaders to visit programs to see firsthand what’s getting in the way of children being fed. Encourage creative publicity and outreach to help get children to existing sites, and encourage sites to stay open longer into the summer. Now is the time to act!
To learn more about how to open a summer feeding site, sponsor one, volunteer at one, or find one in your community, visit the Summer Food Service Program. To learn more about how we can make it a national priority to expand access to these programs and others with long records of success fighting hunger, come to CDF’s July 22nd-25th national conference in Cincinnati, Ohio this summer and register for the workshop End Child Hunger in Rich America Now.