Children’s advocates have long said that “hunger doesn’t take a summer vacation.” They are referring, of course, to the fact that the millions of children who rely on federally subsidized school meals for the majority of their nutrition must often find another way to sustain themselves during that three-month break.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture, which administers school meals, has had a summer meals program for years that allows qualifying schools and organizations to provide free meals to children in their communities. The program has received increased attention lately as members of the U.S. Congress, like Rep. Jim McGovern, D-Mass., visit summer meal sites. McGovern discussed his visit in an address on the House floor Wednesday.
The USDA and several children’s welfare groups have upped their efforts to increase participation, even pushing for passage of proposed legislation that would help feed hungry kids in the summer. Here’s what you should know:
Participation in summer meal programs has grown.
Participation in the summer meals program saw its first major increase in a decade in the summer of 2013, according to a report by the Food Research and Action Center. In July 2013, the program served nearly 3 million children, an increase of 161,000 children or 5.7 percent from 2012, and the largest percentage increase since 2003, the report says. That growth is in part due to USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack’s commitment to partnering with organizations to grow summer meals participation in 2013.
“The programs grew to serve 15.1 children for every 100 low-income children who participated in school lunch during the 2012-2013 school year, a modest increase from the 14.3:100 served in the 2011-2012 school year,” the report says. “This growth is due to a combination of more children (161,000) eating summer meals, and fewer low-income children (27,000) eating school lunch during the regular school year.”
Advocates say participation levels are still far short of where they should be—only one out of every seven students who qualify for free- and reduced-price lunches eat summer meals.
While participation in other programs, like SNAP, grew in the recession that started in 2008, participation in summer meals dropped. That’s in part because declining public budgets meant cuts to child-care and community programs that frequently serve as platforms for summer meals, FRAC says. Participation began to drop in 2009, and those declines continued in every subsequent year. Between 2008 and 2012, 99,000 fewer children were participating in the summer meal programs. “While participation in the Summer Nutrition Programs was falling, participation in the National School Lunch Program was growing dramatically during the same time period,” the FRAC report says.
Organizations that support summer meals say states could help boost participation by better recruiting local sites, such as schools, libraries, and recreation centers, to participate. And local organizations, such as school districts, should ensure they are properly publicizing their programs to reach as many kids in need as possible.
Sites have boosted participation through creative strategies, like combining free food with a chance to hear a story or use free wireless internet.
Combining summer meals with enrichment programs, tutoring, summer school, and fun activities helps to ensure more children are fed, advocates say. And, because transportation is an issue, some sites have gone mobile, bringing meals directly to students. In Waco, Texas, for example, schools have partnered with community groups for “Meals on the Bus,” bringing meals to sites throughout the community.
-- Waco Tribune-Herald (@wacotrib) June 16, 2014
The USDA tried to move the needle on meal participation through intensive technical assistance last year in a handful of states—Arkansas, California, Colorado, Rhode Island, and Virginia. The agency saw increased participation in all of those states except Virginia. This year, the USDA will also provide intensive assistance, including community outreach efforts, to Alabama, Illinois, Mississippi, Missouri, Nevada, and Texas.
There are bipartisan congressional efforts to expand access to summer meals programs by changing requirements for providers.
Senators Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, and Kristen Gillibrand, D-N.Y., introduced a bill called the Summer Meals Act in June. Rep. Don Young, R-Alaska, introduced a companion bill in the House of Representatives. The legislation would:
- Lower the threshold to allow areas with 40 percent or more of students receiving free- or reduced-price lunches to be eligible for the program. Currently, the bar is set at 50 percent.
- Allow for free dinners to be served, in addition to free breakfasts and lunches.
- Cut red tape, allowing public-private partnerships to more easily offer summer meals.
- Provide support for organizations to transport children to meal sites or to serve meals remotely through mobile units.
Advocates are also pushing for changes to the program through reauthorization of the Child Nutrition Act.
Congress is set to reauthorize the Child Nutrition Act in 2015, setting guidelines for school meal programs, among other things. The last reauthorization required more participation from schools in promoting summer meals and made it easier for nonprofit organizations to participate. If current legislative efforts don’t succeed, child-hunger organizations would like to see similar goals incorporated into reauthorization plans.
A version of this news article first appeared in the Rules for Engagement blog.