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By Diane Whitmore Schanzenbach
July 18, 2017
IDEAS
Schanzenbach is the director of The Hamilton Project and a Senior Fellow at the Brookings Institution.

For many children, summer vacation evokes images of their favorite foods: backyard barbecues, fresh farmer’s market produce, s’mores by the campfire and frozen delights from the ice cream truck. However, for the 13 million children in America living in food-insecure households — homes lacking the adequate resources to purchase the food needed for an active, healthy lifestyle — summer vacation offers less relief than it does hunger and uncertainty. During the school year, free or reduced-price school meal programs often serve as the front line of defense against food insecurity for millions of children. But when school is out, the overwhelming majority of these children lose access to this assistance, and their rates of food insecurity increase.

Childhood food insecurity is a tangible problem for millions of families throughout the country — in suburbs, exurbs, small towns, and urban centers from coast to coast. As of 2015, over one in six American children lived in households with food insecurity, and in five states the rate surpasses one in four. Despite steady declines since the depths of the Great Recession, these rates remain unconscionably high.

Fortunately, some students continue to have access to school lunches in the summer, through summer school programs or year-round schooling. Others may benefit from additional U.S. Department of Agriculture–funded programs run by local organizations (such as the YMCA, Boys & Girls Clubs, churches, schools and parks) aimed at feeding children when school is out of session. Last summer, over three million children received lunch through these critical summer food service programs. And in some areas, the USDA has offered a summer-only program, awarding electronic voucher benefits of $30–60 per month per child that can be used to purchase food in grocery stores. Research has shown that increasing food benefits is a particularly effective method to combat food insecurity among families.

Nevertheless, while these USDA initiatives and community-based programs provide a much-needed lifeline for some children and their families, they serve only 15 out of every 100 children who receive free or reduced price lunches during the school year. These programs have also often been unable to reach their full potential due to factors including burdensome regulations imposed by USDA (such as certifying that all meals meet USDA nutrition standards) and limited access in rural and suburban areas due to lack of transportation for children, which deters many organizations from creating or expanding summer meals programs.

The good news is that there are actionable steps you can take to reduce the indignity of childhood hunger in your local community — which do not require much time, energy or resources (unless you would like them to).

First, know what’s already in your area. The USDA has a summer meal program locator, which tells you where your region’s summer meals programs are located. Then, spread the word. Share it on Facebook and other social media. Speak about it with other families at camps or daycare or, really, anywhere. Too often, a lack of awareness about existing summer meal programs currently available can prevent kids from accessing the nutrition they need.

Next, build more. Encourage both public and private organizations in your area — libraries, parks and recreation departments, tutoring programs, religious congregations, athletic leagues — to open their doors and offer meals programs to children this summer. Talk for a few minutes after the next meeting with the leaders you know. There are plenty of obvious benefits: Comprehensive and enriching summer programs will help meet the needs of kids and families, reduce summer learning loss, improve health and keep children safe and out of trouble. The cost of providing summer programs to kids is reduced when USDA funding for food is there to help defray costs.

Then, expand your reach. Write a letter (not a tweet) to your Congressional representatives to advocate for funding for comprehensive and enriching summer programs. If this fails: Try writing an opinion-editorial for a regional newspaper in your Congressperson’s area. While there is currently funding available for summer meals, there is not adequate funding to support summer enrichment programs at which children can also be fed — and President Trump’s proposed budget calls for even greater reductions to summer enrichment programs. This is problematic because although some cities (such as Seattle) are able to serve children free meals in enriching, summer day camp settings — made possible by USDA support for meals, coupled with local government and philanthropic funding — many others (including Washington, D.C.) lack the funding to offer enriching activities to accompany their summer meal programs. Fortunately, Congress has the power to make it easier for rural and suburban organizations to adopt and grow these programs, by funding transportation to summer feeding sites and expanding the summer food voucher program so more families can purchase additional groceries for their children during the summer.

All the while, keep it simple. Donate food, money or a few hours of your time to your local food bank and the other community organizations already working hard to feed kids this summer. Even better, organize a group of friends and go.

Our nation’s children deserve to experience summer breaks filled with fun, not hunger pangs. In order to make this a reality, all of us — from private citizens to community organizations to our nation’s leaders in Washington, D.C. — must step up to the plate to strike out childhood hunger.

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