When schools let out for summer break, some of the country’s poorest students—who rely on federally subsidized school meals—lose their key source of nutrition.
Federally funded summer meal programs are designed to bridge that gap, but many children miss out, children’s advocacy groups say.
Of the 20 million children who ate free or reduced-price lunches during the 2016-17 school year, only 1 out of 7 participated in the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s summer meal programs, according to a report released last week by the Food Research and Action Center. And the number of children served by summer meal programs in 2017 dropped by 14,000, a 0.5 percent decline from the previous summer, the report found.
That decrease, and falling participation the prior year, followed a “successful multiyear effort to increase participation” through publicity campaigns promoting free summer meal sites and attempts to reduce red tape for organizations that want to take part.
The USDA’s free summer meal programs allow such organizations as libraries, schools, and youth programs to offer free meals to children younger than 18 in areas where at least half the children are considered to be from low-income families.
Why do so many children miss out? There’s a shortage of funding for summer enrichment programs, which often offer free summer meals. Some children aren’t aware of the meals program, and many lack transportation to meal sites, especially in rural areas.
In recent years, organizations have worked with the USDA to provide options like text lines that allow families to easily locate meal sites. (Text “FOOD” to 877-877 to use No Kid Hungry’s free meal-site finder.) And some participating organizations have tackled transportation barriers by serving meals in food trucks and modified buses that travel through low-income neighborhoods during the summer.
FRAC has a goal of seeing at least 40 percent of children who eat free or reduced-price school meals take advantage of summer food programs. States are reaching that goal with various levels of success. The District of Columbia, Vermont, and New York state feed a greater proportion of those children, while Oklahoma, Nevada, and Louisiana feed the lowest share during the summer.
A version of this article appeared in the June 20, 2018 edition of Education Week as Children Bypass Summer Meals