What happens to school lunches in the summer months?July 17, 2012
During the school year, almost 20 million children receive free or reduced-priced lunch through the National School Lunch Program (NSLP). Nearly 10 million of these children also receive free or reduced-price breakfast through the School Breakfast Program (SBP). But when summer vacation comes around, where do these children receive the meals that they rely on when school is in session?
Some nutrition assistance continues to be available to low-income children during school vacation through the NSLP and the Summer Food Service Program (SFSP). However, many children miss out on this valuable assistance. During the summer of 2011, only 1 in 7 of the children who rely on the NSLP for free or reduced-price lunches at school received summer meals.
For families relying on the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), formerly known as the Food Stamp Program, in areas where summer meals are hard to come by, school vacation can become a time of heightened food insecurity. SNAP dollars are stretched as meals that children typically receive at school must be provided at home. Given that nearly 50% of SNAP participants are children, this extra pressure on food budgets during summer months is pervasive among SNAP households.
The summer federal nutrition programs operate by reimbursing approved schools, youth programs, local governments, and nonprofit organizations for the meals they serve to children. “Open” sites can be approved to receive federal funds if located in an area where 50 percent or more of children are eligible for free or reduced-price school meals; any child that shows up can receive a meal. At “closed” sites, at least 50 percent of children receiving meals must be eligible for free or reduced-price school meals.
Under the current system of summer nutrition programs, many eligible children are unable to access sites serving food. Children in rural areas or with working parents often lack the transportation to reach sites that provide meals and snacks. Programs in rural areas may also have difficulty qualifying for funding, due to lower concentrations of poverty in some rural areas compared to urban ones. Additionally, in recent years state and local budget cuts have resulted in the closure of summer schools and youth programs. When programs like these are discontinued, children lose an essential source of food.
The closure of a summer lunch program in Beaver County, Pennsylvania, showcases some of the issues of summer food assistance delivery and hunger. Last summer, children at Harshbarger Mobile Home Park could walk down the road to receive lunch from a converted school bus operated by the South Side School District. The mobility of the program was essential to its success in reaching children, but the bus was costly, as federal funding did not cover the driver and gas. This year, the school district had to close down the Lunch Bus program, as none of its schools met the 50 percent eligibility requirement for open sites—areas of high poverty in the district are too thinly distributed. This year, parents will have to take their children on a 20-minute drive to another site to receive lunch. For working parents in the community, this is a major barrier to having their children obtain the free meals for which they qualify.
Seeking effective solutions to this summer hunger problem, USDA has funded a series of Summer Food for Children demonstrations since 2010. As a component of these demonstrations, USDA has awarded $5.5 million in grants to states and tribal entities with innovative proposals for how pre-existing electronic benefit infrastructure in SNAP and the Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) can be used to deliver summer food to children. In demonstration areas, low-income families receive money for food comparable to the value of school meals via electronic benefit systems. By providing benefits directly to participating households, these demonstrations seek to address the barriers to accessibility that limit the success of existing summer nutrition programs.
Across the country, non-government initiatives both at the grassroots level and on a larger scale seek to fill the gap where federally-funded programs fail to reach children. In the Central Greene School District in Greene County, Pennsylvania, the support of volunteers, grants, and sponsors serves up meals for over 1,000 children. Chapters of the non-profit organization Share Our Strength’s No Kid Hungry campaign have mapped out data about meal sites and poverty to identify target locations for meal programs and raise awareness among community leaders and local officials. In June, Wal-Mart announced a $20 million grant to support summer food programs.
Ensuring children receive adequate nutrition all year round is critical to their health, growth, and overall well-being. The best way to guarantee that American children will not go hungry in the summer is to marshal both new strategies and existing programs to provide children the meals that they need. Please use this website to share your ideas about how to sustain critical nutrition programs for school-aged children in the summer months.