Summertime can be a carefree, relaxing season filled with cookouts, backyard picnics, and trips to the ice cream truck.

But for too many kids, summer vacation means having an empty stomach. Child hunger and food insecurity often peak during the long, hot break. At a time when food insecurity is so high, an overwhelming majority of American children who receive free or reduced-price meals at school goes hungry once school lets out.

The federally funded Summer Food Service Program and the National School Lunch Program provide nutritious meals and snacks to low-income children during the summer months. Unfortunately, it’s “falling increasingly short of meeting the needs,” according to the Food Research and Action Center.

Schools, local governments, sports programs, and private organizations that serve eligible children can all feed kids in summer school programs. But in July 2010, just 2.8 million children received lunch through the summer programs on an average day, the Food Research and Action Center found. That’s only 15 low-income kids for every 100 who received lunch on an average day during the school year. By that measure, only one in seven children who needs summer food is getting it.

There simply aren’t enough programs available to serve all the children who need them. The continuing fallout from the Great Recession has only made this worse as budget cuts have led many communities to slash funding for summer schools and summer youth programs, making opportunities for summer meals even more limited.

Some programs don’t run for the whole summer, and there aren’t enough eligible programs providing robust activities and services in addition to meals that draw families in. Adding programs and services and keeping sites open longer could both reduce childhood hunger and help many communities create desperately needed jobs — a win-win. This should be a priority in communities across the country.

Even where summer feeding programs are in place, there isn’t always enough outreach to let all eligible families know about them. In addition, these programs tend to be available for shorter and less regular hours than a normal school day, which limits participation. Transportation often isn’t provided, so making these programs available where hungry children are is important. Some programs have had success providing mobile meals. That can be especially helpful in rural communities.



Many organizations that provide summer activities for children may not even realize they’re eligible for funding to serve meals. Others find they would be able to participate with just a little help from local foundations or community donations to cover extra expenses like refrigerators or coolers.

Sometimes the amount of paperwork required to run a site is a barrier. Small programs may have special difficulty running sites — for example, a church-based program serving 15 children may not have the same infrastructure as a school running a summer school lunch program. These kinds of obstacles shouldn’t be standing in the way. We should be using these programs as effectively as possible to enable more sites to provide meals for needy children this summer — and helping many fewer children to go hungry.

How is your community helping hungry children this summer? Encourage civic and philanthropic leaders to get involved. Encourage sites to stay open longer during the summer and help get more eligible kids to participate in the summer programs that can keep them from going hungry.

Now is the time to act. Hunger and poor nutrition are linked to physical, mental, and dental health problems — and poor educational outcomes — that don’t end when summer starts.

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Marian Wright Edelman

Marian Wright Edelman is the president of the Children's Defense Fund.
To learn more about how to open a summer feeding site, sponsor one, volunteer at one, or find one in your community, visit the Summer Food Service Program. A longer version of this op-ed ran in the Huffington Post.
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