More than 30 million children in low-income households rely on the free or reduced-price school meals program for their nutritional needs, but when the school year ends their lives can be thrown into disarray. The current system for providing summer meals only serves about one fifteenth as many kids as rely on school-funded food during the academic year.
Caretakers must find a way to provide three times as many meals. “It’s hard enough during the school year, and in the summertime I really have to be extra careful,” said Jean C. of Scranton, Pennsylvania. “I usually do, in the summertime, go without eating. My kids, no matter what, they eat.”
“They’ll ask me, ‘mommy why aren’t you eating?’ and I’ll say, ‘oh I’ll eat after you guys eat,’” she said, a member of Witnesses to Hunger. Ten-year-old Jeredan, Jean’s oldest, started to pick up on what was happening last summer. “He would get so upset and say, ‘Well if you’re not eating, I’m not gonna eat because that’s not fair if you don’t eat.’ He gets really worried when that happens.”
Other families manage to narrowly avoid summer hunger thanks to federally funded non-profit programs in their communities that are targeted to recipients of free school meals. But even with that essential support, summers are harder on Hope, a Kansas City single mother of three. “It’s very tight in the summer,” she said. “There’s not as much food in the house as we normally have.” After rent ($622), phone and electrical bills ($350), and her car payment ($400), the $1,800 Hope earns each month from her two jobs leaves the four of them to eat on just a few hundred dollars each month. All three of Hope’s children attend a summer program at their public housing development through a group called Phoenix Family.
Melanie Small, one of Hope’s neighbors who also sends her youngsters to Phoenix Family, knows just how lucky she is to have that support system. “If I didn’t live there, I wouldn’t know what to do,” Small said, remembering what it was like for her and her three kids before she had ready access to summer help. “I’ve been in that situation where I’ve needed it. And I didn’t know what to do. Do I not have a place to live? Or do I buy my kids food?”
In recent years, the government has explored various approaches to addressing summer hunger for families who face those sorts of impossible choices because the current system doesn’t reach them. But it has yet to commit to a full-scale supplement to the Summer Food Service Plan.
One approach favored by Sen. Patty Murray (D-WA) would give money directly to the caretakers of children who receive free or reduced-price school meals via electronic benefits transfer (EBT) cards. The “Stop Child Summer Hunger Act” Murray introduced Wednesday would expand a pilot USDA program called Summer EBT for Children to go nationwide, providing roughly $150 in supplementary food money per eligible child per summer. (Republicans on the House Appropriations Committee approved a bill that limits that same pilot program to rural communities only.)
Murray’s direct approach could simplify things at every level of the fight against hunger. “It gives more power and control to the families,” said Dr. Mariana Chilton, a child hunger expert who teaches at the Drexel University School of Public Health and heads their Center for Hunger-Free Communities. “It’s not like there are a whole lot of high-quality programs that parents can access easily” under the current system, Chilton added, and direct transfers would reach underserved populations much more quickly.
And even for kids who benefit from the sort of programs that Jean and her family can’t access today, life is tenuous. “It’s really crucial because we don’t know that otherwise those families would be able to provide them food,” Phoenix Family Executive Director Kimber Myers Givner said. “The cost of feeding them that’s normally taken care of during the school day gets a lot harder.”
Jean’s doctor says her chronic back injuries leave her unable to work, and her kids stay home rather than going to a summer program that might help replace the nutritional intake they lose out on when the academic year ends. The supplemental benefits in Murray’s bill “would be awesome,” she said. “It’s a little less that parents like myself would have to worry about,” and it might save her from more of those heart-wrenching conversations with Jeredan, who turns 11 this summer.