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.