Spring is almost in full swing and summer is just around the corner. Millions of children in America can’t wait for summer vacation, but for millions of poor children who rely on school meals it’s a mixed blessing. “I qualify for free and reduced lunch. I can get a free breakfast, I can get like a muffin, juice, anything like that, in the morning, and then lunch, I don’t have to pay, so I can get whatever I wanted for lunch. So I’ve always been able to eat at school for lunch and breakfast.” Linda Ransom is a Columbus, Ohio high school senior and the winner of a Children’s Defense Fund Beat the Odds® scholarshipwhose family struggles to make ends meet. When Linda was seven her mother was diagnosed with breast cancer and the medical crisis led to a family financial crisis. Linda’s mother lost her job, and with a mountain of medical bills is still trying to catch up ten years later. They’ve been homeless for stretches of time. Food has often been beyond their means. Linda says, “If we didn’t have any food at home, I knew I could get some at school, and sometimes I could take a couple things from the breakfast line and I could just save it for later, so when I got home, if I was hungry, I could eat it.”
Hunger doesn’t take a summer vacation and poor children like Linda who rely on free and reduced price breakfast and lunch during the school year to keep the wolves of hunger at bay face a long summer of food deprivation. “It was hard without school during the summer, but being able to qualify for something like food stamps or having a food pantry near us, that helped a lot,” Linda says, but at the end of the month, “it was kind of like a hit-or-miss kind of situation.”
Hit or miss. No child in rich America should go hungry this or any summer, especially when 100 percent federally funded summer feeding programs are available if local officials and communities apply for or use them. But more than 1 in 4 families with children are food insecure and struggling to keep food on the table. The federal Summer Nutrition Programs could help millions more children escape hunger this summer by providing meals if responsible adults act now. The need is urgent. Although 19.7 million children received free or reduced price lunches during the 2013-2014 school year, only 3.2 million children – 16.2 percent – participated in the Summer Nutrition Programs.
If local school boards, community groups, faith congregations, mayors, and county representatives act now, they should be able to get 100 percent federally funded Summer Nutrition Programs in their area or add more if there already are some summer food sites. The federal Summer Food Service Program and the “Seamless Summer” option offered through the National School Lunch Program are designed to replace the regular school year breakfast and lunch programs. Meals provided through the Summer Nutrition Programs also can link children without summer learning opportunities, camps or other costly options to educational and recreational programming to keep them learning, active and safe during school vacation. Summer feeding programs also create jobs for food preparers, servers, bus drivers and others.
Schools, community recreation centers, playgrounds, parks, places of worship, day and residential summer camps, housing projects, migrant centers, and Native American reservations are among places that can serve as summer feeding program sites. Many more sites are needed to fill the summer hunger gap for millions of children. Far too many communities have no sites at all or have sites difficult for children without transportation to reach. Check in now with your school officials, mayors and county executives to learn what they are doing to prevent childhood hunger. Some questions to ask include:
- How many children receiving school year breakfasts and lunches will be served by Summer Food Service Programs? What steps have they taken or will they take immediately to get more summer feeding sites up and running?
- How are parents notified about free summer food options?
- Are there district school buses that could be outfitted to deliver summer meals to inaccessible rural areas?
- How many weekend and holiday meal backpacks are provided to children within the Summer Food Service Programs? Has your school district reached out to seek community support for these backpacks?
- In districts with large percentages of children in housing projects, have you or local officials asked housing authorities to make sure they get food to hungry children?
- Are faith communities and service organizations with kitchens in your community aware of the 100 percent federally funded resources and planning to provide summer meals this summer? Do they know about the Children’s Defense Fund’s Freedom Schools® program that provides summer reading enrichment and food to stop summer learning loss and hunger among low-income children?
The Department of Agriculture (USDA) has been working very hard to reach more children and is testing exciting new ways to help overcome barriers blocking summer meals for hungry children. Some communities are using mobile vans to transport meals. Others use electronic benefit transfer (EBT) cards to transfer money to help families purchase extra food for children in the summer. When 4.9 million households, including 1.4 million with children, had no cash income in fiscal year 2014 and depended only on food stamps to stave off hunger, every public official, congregation, and school system needs to use every tool available to help keep children from going hungry over three long summer months.
Check the Summer Meals Toolkit on the USDA’s Food and Nutrition Service’s Summer Feeding Service Program website to learn more about becoming a Summer Meal Champion in your community or call the National Hunger Hotline at 1-866-348-6479. There is no reason why there should be a single hungry child in America. Please act now before the school year ends to allow millions of children to take a real school vacation without hunger pains.
Marian Wright Edelman is President of the Children’s Defense Fund whose Leave No Child Behind® mission is to ensure every child a Healthy Start, a Head Start, a Fair Start, a Safe Start and a Moral Start in life and successful passage to adulthood with the help of caring families and communities. For more information go to staging.childrensdefense.org.
Mrs. Edelman’s Child Watch Column also appears each week on The Huffington Post.