As school ends and summer vacation begins for K-12 students across the country, plenty of children will be excited to take a break from tests and homework and spend time with friends. But summer vacation often means something different for low-income children who relied on school for regular meals.
During the 2014 fiscal year, over 21.5 million children qualified for the free and reduced-price lunch program, but only 2.7 million children used the national summer food service program daily. A survey by No Kid Hungry, an organization that seeks to raise awareness about childhood hunger, released this month, showed 83 percent of educators worry that their students will not have enough to eat this summer and 75 percent say their students come to school hungry.
According to a 2013 report by Children’s HealthWatch, “Too Hungry to Learn: Food Insecurity and School Readiness,” food insecurity in early in a child’s life has long-term effects. Teenagers who had insufficient nutrition in infancy were more likely to have lower test scores on achievement tests, as well as more likely to skip a grade. The report also showed that food insecurity is tied to iron-deficiency anemia in young children, which hurts the development of basic motor skills and social skills.
Although programs such as Early Head Start are meant to counteract these problems, only 192,664 children were enrolled in the program in 2013. In the 2014 fiscal year, 927,275 children were enrolled in the regular Head Start program for children 3 years old and older.
What’s worse is that some of the programs designed to reach low-income kids may not be effective. For example, the national summer meals program, which was designed to serve low-income families missing sufficient nutrition in the summer, doesn’t reach a lot of families because 80 percent of children from low-income backgrounds spend their time at home in the summer, not at a community program, according to No Kid Hungry’s analysis.
Because federal law requires the food be eaten at the site, the organization worries that the program is also ineffective. Kids may struggle to get to sites where it’s offered due to severe weather that often shuts down sites in the summer and the fact that low-income families struggle to pay for transportation.
No Kid Hungry suggested a Meals on Wheels program for kids to make sure they get the nutrition they need, especially since a third of low-income kids live outside predominantly low-income communities, which is where the meal sites are often located.
The government is aware of some these limitations, which is why, in 2013, the U.S. Department of Agriculture gave guidance to regional directors of special nutrition programs that allows some flexibility by letting sponsors provide food by bus or other vehicles. That allows the meal service to still be supervised and for the kids to eat “on site” in the bus or near the drop-off location. The number of kids reached through mobile food programs is unknown, however.