From the city streets of Baltimore to the wide open spaces of Kansas and the suburban cul-de-sacs of Fort Worth, kids will struggle to eat this summer. Summer vacation will be a time of anxiety and stress for low-income families forced to decide between buying a bag of groceries and paying the electric bill.
It doesn’t have to be this way. Summer meals are available to help millions of children get the nutrition they need. These meals could be a catalyst for improving the overall well-being of children across the nation.
One in five kids in the United States lives in a “food insecure” family, a family that struggles to consistently put enough food on the table for everyone. During the school year, free and reduced-price meals at school are a lifeline, ensuring that children get reliable access to nutrition. When schools close for the summer, however, these meals disappear. In one recent survey, low-income families say grocery bills can rise as much as $300 a month during the summer, putting incredible pressure on already-strained budgets.
The national summer meals program was created 40 years ago to help students get enough nutrition when school is out of session. When the program works well, it’s an essential aid. No Kid Hungry works with local organizations around the nation to find new, effective, innovative ways to connect kids to the program and provide healthy meals during the summer months.
Today, however, the program just doesn’t reach a majority of kids in need. Of the 22 million kids who receive a free or reduced-price school lunch, only 4 million are getting a summer meal.
There is a variety of barriers that block kids from accessing meals. Excessive red tape discourages many organizations from becoming meal sites. Kids are required to eat their meals at the sites, but with many parents at work and with school buses out of service for the summer, transportation can be impossible. In rural areas and the suburbs, kids can live miles away from meal sites. Summer storms and extreme heat close sites. As a result, for every kid who eats regularly at a summer meals site, there are five more who miss out. That adds up to millions of hungry kids.
This has major ramifications. A summer meals program that doesn’t reach kids exacerbates the struggles faced by many children growing up in poverty. Studies show that students from low-income families experience a greater “summer slide” in academics than their peers, returning to school two months behind in reading. The effect is cumulative, and by the end of fifth grade, low-income students are nearly three grade equivalents behind their peers in reading.
Students who do not get enough nutrition over the summer months are more likely to experience long-term health consequences than their more affluent peers. Hunger makes children more susceptible to chronic diseases, like iron deficiency, anemia, asthma, type 2 diabetes, and heart disease. It also leads to a higher rate of pediatric hospitalizations.
These problems are costly and avoidable. Consistent access to nutritious meals during the summer can act as a vaccine that ensures that kids are healthier, smarter, and stronger.
We need to spur our federal lawmakers into action. Congress is currently considering improvements to the summer meals program through child nutrition reauthorization, but the process has been slow moving and plagued by inaction.
We must continue to urge our lawmakers to stand up for kids and pass a strong bill that supports and strengthens existing summer meals sites. We also need policies to make it easier for states to reach low-income children in hard-to-reach places, such as rural communities or areas currently ineligible to host summer sites.
For example, when accessing a summer meal site is difficult or impossible for children, states should have the option of delivering meals or allowing children to leave a site with a meal for later. And where it makes sense, states should have the option of providing low-income families with a grocery store credit during the summer months to purchase nutritious foods, a model that has been proven to reduce the most severe forms of childhood hunger by up to one-third.
We can’t let our foot off the gas. Kids can’t push pause on their growling stomachs until we figure this out—this is happening in real time.
Bill Shore is the founder and executive director of Share Our Strength, a national nonprofit that is ending childhood hunger in America, primarily through its No Kid Hungry program. Across the country, No Kid Hungry is helping children get the food they need and parents stretch their grocery budgets to the end of the month.
Shore is the author of four books including Revolution of the Heart (1995), The Cathedral Within (1999), The Light of Conscience (2004), and his most recent book, The Imaginations of Unreasonable Men (2010).