For too many youth, summer is a time of hunger. When the last school bell rings for summer break, millions of youth lose access to the free and reduced-price school breakfasts and lunches they rely on during the school year. Families often struggle to fill the nutrition gap created when their children no longer have access to school meals.
The federal Summer Nutrition Programs are meant to fill that gap, providing funding to serve meals at sites in low-income communities or that serve primarily low-income children. Sites that serve primarily migrant children also are eligible. Once a site qualifies, all the children at the site can participate. All the meals served must meet federal nutrition standards.
Yet, the Summer Nutrition Programs are missing far too many youth. According to the Food Research & Action Center’s “Hunger Doesn’t Take a Vacation” report, in July 2016 only 3 million children participated. That means that they served only one child out of every seven who received a free or reduced-price school lunch during the school year. Nationally, participation dropped by 153,000 children from the previous summer, marking the first decrease since 2011.
The low participation in summer nutrition is driven in large part by the limited number of summer programs for low-income youth. Summer meals typically are provided at sites in communities, such as schools, recreation centers, YMCAs, Boys & Girls Clubs, churches and parks — with the vast majority offering educational and enrichment activities.
Strong summer meals sites include activities. Combined, meals and programming meet two important needs of low-income youth: Good nutrition, so they are not going hungry during the summer months, and educational and enrichment activities that keep them learning, engaged, active and safe — all of which allow youth to return to school well-nourished and better prepared for the classroom.
Lack of transportation, which keeps too many youth away from summer programs, also keeps youth away from summer meals. There is no federal funding to cover the cost of transporting children to summer meal sites. The bipartisan Summer Meals Act (HR 203), would provide transportation funding, as well as make it easier for nonprofits to feed youth year-round in summer and after-school programs; improve the eligibility requirement so sites would only need a threshold of 40, rather than 50, percent of children and youth eligible for free or reduced-price school meals in the community or being served at the site to qualify to serve summer meals; and allow all sites to serve three meals a day (most sites can only provide two meals a day no matter how many hours youth are on site). The bill is likely to be introduced in the Senate within the next year.
Another common barrier to participation is a lack of awareness about the programs and how to access summer meals. Many of the states that serve the most children and youth, as well as many successful summer meal programs in communities across the country, conduct aggressive outreach campaigns to let youth and families know where sites that offer free summer meals are located. Much more outreach is needed around the country.
Given the low participation rates in the Summer Nutrition Programs, there is much work to be done. Everyone can help make sure that youth have access to healthy meals during summer vacation. Those working with and providing services to youth can help ensure access to summer meals and combat summer hunger.
- Let youth and their families know that youth 18 and younger can receive summer meals. Use the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) summer site locator to let families know about the location of sites in your community. USDA also has developed a helpful resource on outreach to teens.
- Offer summer meals at sites where your organization provides summer programming and activities for youth (check out FRAC’s eligibility mapper to find out if your site would qualify). While it may be too late for this summer, organizations should keep it in mind for next summer.
- Make sure that your community has summer meal sites to meet the need by connecting with state and local anti-hunger advocates or your state child nutrition agency.
- Advocate for more federal, state and local funding for quality summer programs for low-income youth, including maintaining funding for the 21st Century Community Learning Center program, as well as improvements to the Summer Nutrition Programs to increase their reach.
Without access to healthy summer meals at quality summer programs, youth will return to school less healthy and further behind academically. For more information on summer meals, visit http://frac.org/programs/summer-nutrition-programs.
Crystal FitzSimons is director of School and Out-of-School Time Programs at the Food Research & Action Center. She is the author or co-author of numerous publications, including Hunger Doesn’t Take A Vacation: Summer Nutrition Status Report.