Keeping Hunger Away While School’s Out: The Importance of Summer Food Programs for Kids

Posted on by Oliver Tang

Many children enthusiastically associate summer vacation with the end of classes and homework for the year, but for some of the 22 million children who depend on schools for free or reduced-priced meals, an essential ingredient of their life is noticeably absent: a steady source of food and nutrition. Children obtain 50% of their calories from food eaten at school. However, during summer vacation, with school no longer in session, many food-insecure children lose access to meals for free or reduced prices. During the school year, nutritious meals are available through the National School Lunch and School Breakfast Programs. But those programs end when school lets out for the summer. Children in communities do not need to go hungry this summer because summer Nutrition Programs can help to fill the hunger gap.

There are currently two federal Summer Nutrition programs: the National School Lunch Program (NSLP) Seamless Summer Option, which only schools can participate in, and the Summer Food Service Program (SFSP), the single largest federal resource available for local sponsors who want to combine a feeding program with a summer activity program. School-age children pick up food at designated meal sites, such as schools, community centers, and parks, which work directly with program sponsors. The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) funds these programs through an agency in each state, typically the Department of Education.

However, a recent report, Hunger Doesn’t Take A Vacation: Summer Nutrition Status Report, issued by the Food Research and Action Center (FRAC) examines some of the shortcomings in summer food programs for school-age children. The study found that the effectiveness of these programs is plateauing, because they are not expanding fast enough to accommodate the growing number of food-insecure children in America. In July 2015, Summer Nutrition programs served nearly 3.2 million children, only a modest increase of 11,000 children from July 2014. However, this increase was minimal in comparison to an increase of 460,000 low-income children eating in the school lunch program over the previous year. As a result, coverage rates during the summer months have fallen. The report found that “for every 100 low-income children who ate school lunches during the 2014–2015 school year, just 15.8 children, or roughly one in six, participated in the Summer Nutrition Programs in July 2015, down from a ratio of 16.2 to 100 the prior year.” This is less than half of the benchmark annually set by FRAC of 40 out of 100 children being fed by summer food programs. The three states with the lowest participation rates, Oklahoma, Mississippi, and Kentucky, all had ratios of less than 8 out of 100 children receiving food from summer programs. Over the course of 2015, while summer food assistance participation rates increased in 29 states (including Washington D.C.), they decreased in 22 states, highlighting the need for a consistent commitment to feeding America’s food-insecure children during these vacation months..

Unfortunately, limitations on the number of low-income school children participating in Summer Food Programs has serious “negative health and development effects including weight gain and a ‘summer slide’ in learning…[leaving them] likely to return to schools in the fall, further behind their peers.” A study published in the Journal of Nutrition entitled Food insecurity affects school children’s academic performance, weight gain, and social skills corroborates that “food insecurity was predictive of poor developmental trajectories in children before controlling for other variables. Food insecurity thus serves as an important marker for identifying children who fare worse in terms of subsequent development.” A Children’s Healthwatch research brief elaborates, “Food-insecure children often are cognitively, emotionally and physically behind their food-secure peers” because “stress that family hardships, like food-insecurity, place on a young child physically alter the development of crucial brain structures controlling memory and psychosocial functioning.” Johns Hopkins University researchers published a study entitled Lasting Consequences of the Summer Learning Gap warning that “this summer shortfall of low-income relative to better-off children contributes to the perpetuation of family advantage and disadvantage across generations.” The authors conclude that food insecurity may remove some of the protective effects of education in this population group. Furthermore, low student participation rates in summer food programs can impact educational funding for some of America’s schools. Additionally, because states and communities are reimbursed for meals through Federal food assistance programs, millions of dollars in funding are lost that could be used “to boost state economies.” The FRAC report suggests that if the 40% benchmark had been met for children to receive summer food assistance, then 4.9 million more children would have been fed and “states would have collected an additional $384 million in child nutrition funding in July alone.”

The Way Forward

There are multiple strategies to increase the number of children participating in summer food assistance programs. They include:

  • Congress is currently working to reauthorize child nutrition programs, a process that occurs every five years. One key proposal being discussed for inclusion in the Child Nutrition Reauthorization legislation is to allow sponsors to provide meals year-round instead of having multiple programs for the school year and for the summer.
  • While Summer School Nutrition Programs provide funding that would make meals available during the weekends and holidays, most programs do not cover these times and serve only two meals a day. Piloting new food delivery methods and engaging community sponsors might help fix this problem. For example, Texas and Washington have initiated pilot programs to deliver weekend meals to children. Alabama has encouraged the participation of faith-based organizations as distribution centers for food in the Summer Nutrition Programs.
  • Many rural areas fail to qualify for Summer Nutrition programs, because they do not meet the requirement of 50% of children in the community being eligible for free or reduced-price school meals. Changing this threshold could help improve program accessibility for children.
  • Many children living in rural communities have limited access to summer meal sites. This can be fixed by providing food-insecure families with summer EBT cards to redeem for summer meals at SNAP or WIC retailers. Summer EBT demonstration projects have been shown to significantly reduce food insecurity for children, according to the FRAC report and USDA. President Obama’s FY 2017 Budget supports the creation of a program to distribute summer EBT cards for summer meals. Furthermore, the use of EBT cards could help improve data collection within the Federal food assistance programs.
  • While summer meals provided through these initiatives are required to meet federal nutrition standards set by the USDA, programs can still go above and beyond this guidance. For example, summer meal programs in California, Idaho, and Alaska are increasing the availability of locally-grown produce into summer meals.
  • There are many new venues participating in summer food programs for children. For example, some public libraries have piloted local initiatives that integrate food distribution programs with existing summer reading initiatives. The USDA is also encouraging local jobs programs to create partnerships with summer meal programs to feed employed youth at worksites.


Summer Nutrition programs like NSLP and SFSP are important ingredients in helping reduce food insecurity among America’s children. However, these programs must expand their reach so that more children have nutritious food to eat during the summer months. A broad spectrum of stakeholders from policymakers to community organizations should work together to ensure that Summer Nutrition programs can help keep children well-fed even when school is out.

To find summer food programs near you, use this helpful resource from the USDA.

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