By: Mariel Matze For many American children, summer is about barbecues, corn on the cob, watermelon, and drippy ice cream cones. For others, it’s about hunger. During the school year, children from low-income families qualify for federally-funded National School Lunch Program (NSLP) and sometimes the School Breakfast Program through their public schools. Under these programs, a family of four earning less than $31,005 can receive free meals and those earning under $44,123 receive reduced price meals. These programs feed twenty-one million children at school and give their families’ budgets a break. During the summer, children living in areas where the majority of school children qualify for school lunches are eligible to receive meals through NSLP as well as the Summer Food Service Program (SFSP). Why then did only one in seven eligible children receive meals through these programs last summer and what toll is food insecurity taking on their well-being? The numbers are concerning. Feeding America reports that in 2013, 21 million children participated in the National School Lunch Program lunches during the school year. Another 10.5 million children qualified for NSLP but did not participate, hinting at a large population of students who could benefit from meals during the school year and summer who don’t receive them. Almost 16 million children (one in five nationwide) live in food insecure households, meaning that their families are unable to regularly put nutritious food on the table. Yet less than 3 million children participated in summer lunch programs, an increase from earlier years, but still too low. Some sources suggest that budget cuts during the Recession force school districts to make tough choices about the summer programming they offer, including participating in summer meal programs. A flagging economy means that other summer meal providers operating under the plan, including government agencies, nonprofits, and youth sports programs, may also have had to limit programming or even close their doors, rendering them unable to distribute food to the community’s children. These tough choices mean that children have reduced access to the outlets that usually would make meals available— as food insecurity, unemployment, and poverty rates rise. Nutrition is especially important during childhood as young brains and bodies are developing quickly. According to No Kid Hungry, children without adequate nutrition get sick more often, take more time to recuperate, and are hospitalized more often. They are more likely to suffer headaches, stomachaches, colds, ear infections, fatigue, and to become obese. Malnutrition during the first three years of life can significantly impact a child’s ability to learn new skills, concentrate, and retain information. Young children are more likely to be aggressive and anxious while teens are more likely to struggle to get along with others. Providing summer meals reduces these effects of food insecurity in two ways: it not only provides the nutrition necessary to keep kids’ bodies and minds growing, but also incentivizes participation in enrichment programs that provide academic support, social outlets, and safe childcare. It is imperative that each and every child can count on regular, nutritious meals. If for any reason their households can’t provide nourishment enough to sustain healthy development, another source must be found— and summer meals are one of them. To find a free, nutritious meal site near you, call 1-866-3-HUNGRY or 1-877-8-HAMBRE (for Spanish speakers). Sources:
- Food Research and Action Center’s Hunger Doesn’t Take a Vacation: Summer Nutrition Status Report 2014
- Feeding America’s Map the Meal Gap 2012
- No Kid Hungry’s Facts on Childhood Hunger
- US Department of Agriculture’s Economic Research Service
Mariel Matze is a writer specializing in public health and education, among other social justice issues. She has worked as a journalist covering Latin American news and is the recipient of the Erness Bright Brody Prize from Wesleyan University. Image by U.S. Department of Agriculture from Wikimedia Commons.