Summer LunchesTue 26 Jun 2012
Story by Patrice Chamberlain
Have you ever stopped to wonder: What happens to all the kids who rely on free/reduced-price lunches when school lets out for the summer?
When it comes to child nutrition, a Food Revolution can’t stop for summer vacation.
Over 31 million kids in the U.S. now rely on a free/reduced-price lunch through the National School Lunch Program (NSLP) during the school year. The USDA offers the Summer Food Service Program and a summer extension of the NSLP to ensure that kids in low-income neighborhoods have access to healthy food when school’s out, yet only 1 in 7 of eligible kids participated in one of these programs.*
For many low-income kids, school lunch may be the only healthy meal that they can count on each day. During summer, these same kids might have a choice between unhealthy food from the corner store or no food at all. It may be kids that spend all day at the library because it’s a neighborhood safe place—with access only to the library’s vending machines. Or it may be the child whose newly unemployed parents that never thought they would need to ask for help or be forced to prioritize rent over food. The stability of school lunches all but disappears for these kids in June.
Research has made clear that not having access to healthy food on a regular basis, a.k.a. food insecurity, is linked to a higher risk of childhood obesity as well as potentially fewer academic gains during the school year. And not to forget, without the rigor of a school schedule (or the safety of school grounds), sedentary activities during the summer can also contribute to excessive weight gain.
Why are millions of kids not getting these summer meals? In part, there are simply not enough summer meal providers. These providers, which can range from a school district or park and recreation department to a nonprofit agency or church, are reimbursed for serving nutritious meals in low-income areas. This is an untapped opportunity for communities to serve free, healthy food to kids in need, help kids stay active, and teach them how to make healthy choices.
The California Summer Meal Coalition offers resources to help communities build successful summer meal programs to serve kids in low-income neighborhoods. Our greatest resource: the successes of those who have revolutionized summer in their communities:
• Riverside Unified School District — which served nearly 300,000 meals—held daily barbeques at community parks, offering a kid-tested-and-approved healthy menu. Nutrition Services Director Rodney Taylor says nothing beats the taste of the program’s freshly-picked local produce. Department motto: “Hunger doesn’t take a vacation…and neither do we.”
• San Diego Unified School District combined nutrition information and activities for families at home with healthy meals served at their summer sites. Their barbeques and free bags of farm-fresh produce didn’t hurt either.
• The City of Oakland and Alameda County Community Food Bank worked with their local library to serve nearly 3,000 free, healthy meals to kids. Good books fed the kids’ minds.
• The parks and recreation department in San Jose swapped out the meals they were serving in their summertime recreation program for healthier options…and got reimbursed for it.
• Escondido Union High School District partnered with local bakeries and organic farmers to provide fresh, from-scratch meals while supporting the local economy.
• Kids participating in Redwood Empire Food Bank’s summer meal program enjoyed gardening activities and fun, educational games focused on nutrition and physical activity.
These are just a few possibilities that result when we prioritize summer in our efforts to improve the health of America’s kids — especially those who need our help most. But kids aren’t the only ones who benefit. Successful programs provide summer jobs and can help child nutrition directors solicit kid input on new recipes for the school year.
There is more work to be done to ensure that all kids have access to high-quality, nutritious food in summer. The first step is to talk to your school food service director to find out if local programs exist and let families know about them. Summer should be a treasured time for every kid, not a time to go hungry.
So who’s up for a summer Food Revolution?
Let us know what summer programs are in place in your area by posting on our Food Revolution Community facebook page.
About the author: Patrice Chamberlain lives with her husband, two children and a counter-surfing husky in the San Francisco Bay Area. She is the coordinator for the California Summer Meal Coalition, a statewide collaboration to combat childhood hunger and obesity through subsidized summer meal programs. For more information about the Summer Meal Coalition, click here.
For more information about the USDA’s summer feeding programs, visit www.summerfood.usda.gov/.
*Source: Food Research and Action Center’s 2011 Hunger Doesn’t Take a Vacation: Summer Nutrition Status Report. Data from 2009-2010 School Year.
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