School’s Out, but Lunch Is Still in Session for the Summer

Federal and state programs are feeding millions of low-income kids, but experts say more needs to be done.
(Photo: Getty Images)
Jun 20, 2016· 2 MIN READ
Gwendolyn Wu is an editorial intern at TakePart and a junior at the University of California, Santa Barbara.

While some students boycott unappetizing food served at their public schools, the campus cafeteria is often the only place where millions of low-income children eat a regular, healthy meal. When the bell rings to mark the beginning of summer vacation, for some it also marks the beginning of hunger pangs.

A report released last week from the Food Research and Action Center found that only about 16 percent of the kids who eat free and reduced-price lunches during the school year participated in federal or state-run Summer Nutrition Programs last summer. With food insecurity affecting an estimated 15.3 million children in the United States, according to the advocacy group Feeding America, boosting the number of kids accessing summer meals has become a national priority.

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A combination of the lack of nutritious meals and the absence of summer enrichment programs results in “negative health and development outcomes for children, including weight gain and a ‘summer slide’ in learning,” wrote the report’s authors. Those “low-income children are likely to return to school in the fall further behind their higher-income peers.”

In January, President Obama announced that the 2017 federal budget would include an investment in the federal summer lunch program. Part of the $12 million allocated includes giving families who lack food security EBT cards to purchase groceries over the summer. Crystal FitzSimons, the director of school and out-of-school time programs for the Food Research and Action Center, told TakePart that test programs have been successful.

“I think there are a couple of solutions—one is we really think there are ways to invest to make sure kids have access to summer food sites,” FitzSimons said. The half dozen summer test sites operating with the EBT cards from the Department of Agriculture have “been shown to reduce food insecurity,” she said. Congress is also about to give reauthorization to the child nutrition programs, and advocates such as FitzSimons hope that includes EBT and an expanded year-round meal program at a wider variety of centers.

Celia Cole, CEO of Feeding Texas, identified a lack of transportation in both urban and rural areas as a key obstacle to getting kids meals during the summer months. Organizations such as hers work in conjunction with school districts and other community centers to help low-income families feed their kids. They know all too well that cash-strapped working moms and dads may not have the ability to get their child to a cafeteria or community center on the other side of town.

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“Simply put, there are not enough sites, or too few that stay open throughout the whole summer to meet the need,” Cole wrote in an email to TakePart. “Schools run most of the programs in Texas but often shut their doors at the end of June when summer school is over, leaving the community without a site in July and August.”

But in some rural areas across the nation, school buses deliver meals to students during the summer months, reaching those who have limited access to food banks and grocery stores. Otherwise, kids under 18 can show up to public schools and community centers for a hot meal. No questions asked.

To that end, the nation’s two largest cities are working hard to meet the needs of low-income kids. Roughly 300 Los Angeles Unified School District schools are open throughout the summer, serving up meals to students. In New York City, schools aren’t the only ones providing food for the 1.1 million children in the public education system. Pools, parks, and libraries are also serving bagels for breakfast and chicken Alfredo at lunch—those locations could be more accessible to kids in need.

Food programs don’t just give kids the chance to eat. Once they are there, school and park settings also offer activities to prevent the summer academic slide. “Most summer food sites provide enrichment and educational access during the summer months,” FitzSimons said. “These programs really provide wonderful support to the community during the summer.”