When most people think about summer vacation, they imagine care-free children enjoying their freedom away from school. However, many children who rely on school meals struggle to get enough to eat during these months at home. In fact, it may be the hungriest time of the year for families that rely on food assistance. Let’s discuss what already exists to help, how many children are reached, and what we can all do to support these families in our communities.
Summer meals help hungry kids, but not all.
Of the twenty-two million children who eat free or reduced-priced school meals, only four million receive a summer meal through the U.S. Department of Agriculture Summer Food Service Program. These meals are served through summer school programs, year-round schooling, at public parks, or by local organizations such as the YMCA, Boys & Girls Clubs, and churches. Yet only 15% of children who qualify for these free meals receive them due to a variety of reasons. Meal sites may be hard to get to, families might not be aware of them, they often have limited hours, or they could close due to extreme heat or bad weather.
Hunger leaves a lasting impact.
Educators stress the importance of daily reading with children to prevent the “summer slide”. Kids who struggle with hunger are more likely to experience this effect—forgetting what they learned and leaving them months behind their classmates at the start of the school year.
Many low-income families without access to nutritious school meals turn to cheap and less healthful foods. This can result in low-income children gaining weight two to three times faster during the summer than during the school year. They are also more at risk for chronic diseases like anemia, asthma, type 2 diabetes, and heart disease.
You can help in simple ways.
We know the issue of summer hunger exists in most communities and the summer meals program struggles to reach many kids who need it. The good news is that there are a few steps you can take to help the success of these programs. None of these require much time, energy, or resources.
Find out what’s available in your area.
The USDA has a summer meal site finder to search where summer meals programs are located by region. To find the closest summer meal site, you can also text the word “FOOD” to 877-877. Once you learn this information, spread it. Share it on Facebook and other social media. Better yet, speak about it with friends and other families at camps and daycare.
Help support hunger organizations.
You can donate food, money, or a few hours of your time to your local food bank and the other community organizations already working hard to feed kids this summer. If you can, bring a group of friends along with you. If you’d like to donate food, consider this list of nutritious donation items that are very needed.
Children should not have to worry about where their next summer meal will come from. Summer break should be filled with joy and fun with friends and family. Any help you can offer will support this critical issue that can often be overlooked.