Combating Child Hunger: Summer Meal Programs
The final school bell rings and heralds the beginning of summer. Smiles spread wide across tiny faces dreaming of lazy days, swimming pools, movie theaters, parks, playgrounds, camps, and beaches. It is the happiest time of the year … Or is it? For some kids, summer marks a season of picnics and recreation. For other children, summer means endless weeks of wondering where their next meal is coming from.
Childhood hunger touches every community in America. It crosses urban, suburban, and rural boundaries in each state and county. Roughly 22% of U.S. children live in households with incomes below the federal poverty level, or one in every five, and 45% live in low-income families. Tragically, 16 million children live in families who struggle to put meals on the table. The faces of hunger are those of American children, who comprise nearly half of the recipients of the federal government's Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP for food stamps). Additionally, the National School Lunch Program (NSLP) was established to provide free or low-cost meals to low-income children in public and non-profit private schools as well as day care facilities. Schools participating in NSLP receive per meal cash reimbursements and agricultural supplements to help provide nutritious meals to low income students. In the 2012-2013 school year, 21.5 million children received free or reduced-price lunches.
Bridging the Gap During Summer Months
The face of childhood hunger can be especially prevalent during the summer months when the school year ends and children can no longer receive daily free or reduced cost meals. In order to bridge this gap, the U.S. Department of Agriculture has established the Summer Food Service Program (SFSP), which provides free meals to children when school is not in session. The SFSP operates in all 50 states, is funded by the federal government, and run by each state's administrative agencies. Each state determines its own food distribution locations and protocols. Most states provide free summer meals at the following places: 1) Schools 2) Government Agencies (municipal recreation or social services departments) 3) Residential Camps 4) National Youth Sports Programs 5) Other Nonprofit Organizations (religious organizations, youth organizations, and community agencies). The majority of SFSP food distribution sites are in low-income neighborhoods and are open to all children. Many sites also offer recreational activities.
To identify USDA Summer Food Service Program locations in your state, county, and city, call 1-866-3-HUNGRY or 1-877-8-HAMBRE (for Spanish speakers) and a representative will assist you in finding a free, nutritious summer meal site near you. As states input programs into the system, the following websites will also soon have information on SFSP food distribution locations: http://www.fns.usda.gov and http://www.whyhunger.org/findfood.
EverydayFamily spoke with staff administering the summer meal program and they advised our readers it is much better to call the hotline numbers for help at the present time (1-866-3-HUNGRY or 1-877-8-HAMBRE) as opposed to the website which is in the process of being updated. Staff said the phone bank is current and updated in real time with meal service providers in every state and county. Representatives can talk with you over the phone, get your demographic information, and recommend specific summer programs tailored to your individual family needs. They can also recommend food pantries and other year-round resources and programs, in addition to the summer services.
In addition to the federal government's USDA Summer Food Service Program, several nonprofit organizations operate hunger relief assistance and food banks over the summer months.
Feeding America is the largest domestic hunger relief charity and seeks to raise public awareness on hunger in America, lobby Capitol Hill for legislative policies that make a difference, and fundraise and manage food banks across the nation. For more information on finding free summer meals in your area (or info on volunteering or donating), visit Feeding America.
The No Kid Hungry campaign is committed to ending childhood hunger by increasing access to information about, and participation, in summer meal programs nationwide. No Kid Hungry also helps to raise awareness, build partnerships, and advocate policy changes to help mitigate child hunger. To seek meal assistance for your family or volunteer your time or money to the cause, visit No Kid Hungry.
Why Hunger operates a number of programs to connect families in need to nutritious, affordable food programs. Why Hunger works collaboratively with many organizations, including the U.S. Department of Agriculture, to collect summer feeding program information in all 50 states, Puerto Rico, and the U.S. Virgin Islands. Why Hunger runs both the National Hunger Clearinghouse and the National Hunger Hotline, which refer families in need to government programs, private food pantries, soup kitchens, and grassroots organizations.
Why Hunger has also launched a “Summer Meals Rock for Kids Campaign” which includes support from noted musical artists and an online auction to raise awareness and funds for summer meal programs for hungry children.
To receive meal and food bank assistance from Why Hunger (or to donate time or money to help children across the nation), check out the Why Hunger website.
What Can You Do To Help?
As the school bell rings heralding the onset of summer, local communities have a golden opportunity to commit to making them hunger-free months for children and hence reclaim the joy of summer for young families. There are many ways to get involved and make a difference.
- You can identify summer meal sites in your area, print out information on them, and distribute/post the details on community boards in your neighborhood, community center, school, business, or church. Information can also be shared online and in social media.
- Find out where all the local food pantries are in your area. Most churches have a food pantry. Check the churches in your area and help spread the word about food programs and hours of operation.
- Consider volunteering your time and/or money at a local meal site in your area. Don't forget to recruit others to assist as well.
- Get to know your neighbors. Consider slipping a bag of groceries on the porch at night anonymously to a family you know could use them.
- Have a neighborhood picnic at least once a month on Saturdays. Pack sandwich bags for neighborhood kids once a month.
- Treat everyone with respect in the grocery store line. Remember to keep your political ideology in your pocket when shopping for groceries. After all, we never know when we may be walking in the shoes of someone we are judging. Pay it forward if somebody ahead of you is behind a dollar or two and you have it. When you are in line and someone is using a food stamp card, never make a negative comment. Always be friendly and encouraging.
- Write a letter to your senator and representative making them aware that half the people on food stamps are little children. Advocate for policies that help young families in need, particularly those with children, and for sensitivity training for SNAP workers distributing food stamps.
As the busy summer days begin and plans are made for family reunions and barbecues, please don't forget about those in your community less fortunate than you. Consider taking a moment to share this article and information on summer food programs with your friends, family, neighbors, churches, and business contacts. Let's take a stand and help summer become a time when all children's faces light up and all little tummies are full. Do it for the children. No little child should be hungry in America.