Most children jump for joy when the final bell rings on the last day of school. For them, summer means freedom. It means camp, vacation, and popsicles.
But summer also means hunger and stagnation for too many American children. Schools begin letting out over the next week, and many children are facing a summer of skipping meals or consuming the cheap but empty calories that contribute to the nation’s child obesity epidemic. Many will languish inside for lack of safe or stimulating places to play while mom and dad are at work. And they will fall further behind higher-income peers who are engaged in summer learning opportunities.
More than 31 million children benefit from the national school lunch program, 62 percent of whom receive free or reduced-price meals. But only one in six of these kids will receive a similarly subsidized summer meal during the summer months.
The federal government’s two main programs for feeding low-income kids during the summer, the Summer Food Service Program and the National School Lunch Program, are very effective where they exist. SFSP allows schools, local YMCAs, parks and recreation departments, churches, and community nonprofits to sponsor a site where children come for food as well as enrichment activities that ensure they enter school more at pace with their higher-income peers. Schools can also offer children healthy meals and a safe place to play in the summer through NSLP. Both initiatives are critical for combating hunger and for reaching First Lady Michelle Obama’s goal to reduce child obesity by providing children access to healthy foods and secure places to participate in physical activity.
These programs have proven effectiveness, yet we fail to connect many eligible children with summer feeding programs and the food and enrichment activities they provide. Fortunately, Congress has the opportunity to make significant improvements to summer feeding in the upcoming reauthorization of the child nutrition programs, including strategies to better connect children to the programs.
One of the biggest limitations of the SFSP under the current model is the shortage of program sites. There are just 34 summer food sites for every 100 school lunch programs. Congress should ensure that more areas are eligible to serve summer meals in order to address this disparity.
Summer food sites that are open to any child in the community can currently only operate in areas where 50 percent or more of the children are eligible for free or reduced-price school lunches. This is the most restrictive threshold in the program’s history and disproportionately hurts rural and suburban communities, which often do not qualify for summer meals because poverty is not as concentrated as in urban areas. Congress could increase the number of summer food sites by lowering the threshold so that open feeding sites can be reimbursed for meals in areas where only 40 percent of children are eligible for free or reduced-price meals. Just this simple step would expand access to nutritious meals in the summer. This reform would also align the requirements for child nutrition programs with Title I eligibility, ensuring that disadvantaged children benefiting from federal education dollars are also able to access the nutrition they need during the summer.
Another factor limiting the number of program sites is that many new sponsors struggle to maintain the financial viability of a program that only operates for a few months of the year, sometimes causing them not to return as a sponsor the following year. A national SFSP study issued in April 2003 found that approximately 8 percent of sponsoring organizations—mostly newer and smaller programs—did not return to the SFSP the following summer. Congress can also improve program access by providing expansion and retention grants that offer start-up funding and technical assistance to increase the number of SFSP sites and retain existing sites. The grants would help new sponsors overcome barriers to continued operation and become established in the community, ensuring that children have reliable and available access to summer programs year after year.
Participation barriers can also keep otherwise eligible children out of the program. Some children cannot participate in a program even when it is offered in their community because they lack transportation to get to the feeding site. Unlike during the school year when children can rely on a daily bus system to transport them to school breakfast and lunch programs, the summer food programs have no such infrastructure. Congress should provide transportation grants to help sponsors connect children to local summer feeding programs, particularly in rural areas.
The Senate Agriculture Committee’s child nutrition bill makes some improvements in summer feeding programs, for example by requiring school food authorities to work with sponsors to inform families of the location of local summer food programs and eliminating a restriction limiting the number of sites where a private summer food sponsor may operate. The bill also authorizes $20 million in retention grants for sponsors similar to those described above. But the child nutrition bill can and should do much more to address the summer hunger gap.
As the House drafts its child nutrition bill, it should invest additional resources for site expansion and retention so more children have access to the program, and it should provide transportation assistance to better connect children to existing sites. The House should also reduce the area eligibility threshold from 50 to 40 percent so low-income children in more areas have access to summer food programs.
Passing these program reforms could not be timelier. Food insecurity data for 2008, collected before the worst of the recession, revealed that 16.7 million children, nearly one in four, lived in a household struggling against hunger with instances of food insecurity rising during the summer months. Data for 2009 is expected to be worse.
Congress should act this year to reauthorize the child nutrition programs, including improvements to the summer feeding programs. When the final school bell rings in June of 2011, more children should have a summer to look forward to.
Melissa Boteach is Manager of Half in Ten: The Campaign to Cut Poverty in Half in Ten Years at the Center for American Progress Action Fund and Sophie Milam is Senior Policy Counsel at Feeding America.