Solving Summer Hunger

March 1, 2015, Department, by Lucy Melcher

Summer hunger for low-income children is a solvable problem, and park and recreation professionals are uniquely positioned to help.Summer can be the hungriest time of year for many kids from low-income families. This is a solvable problem, however; park and recreation professionals are uniquely positioned to help end hunger for children in the summertime and have been key partners in helping to do so around the country. 

A recent study by the Southern Education Foundation found that, for the first time in the 50 years the organization has kept track, a majority of America’s public school kids qualify for free or reduced-price lunches. Almost 15 million kids live in poverty, and nearly half of them are living below half the poverty line. These kids are offered the nutritional lifeline of free or reduced-price breakfast and lunch during the school year. But, when schools close for the summer months, these meals disappear.

This means summer weeks filled with the stress of hunger. Hunger leads to headaches, stomachaches and behavior problems. Children struggling with hunger in the summer also struggle with lethargy and are at a higher risk of obesity. 

That’s just the short-term effect. Hunger experienced in the summer also has consequences that last long after temperatures cool and days get shorter. It can have serious consequences for academic achievement. According to Yolanda Stanislaus, principal of Francis Scott Key Middle School in Silver Spring, Maryland, “You can see a real learning gap at the start of the school year between the students who had enough to eat and those who struggled. The ones who haven’t been getting consistent meals are more stressed out. They take longer to ramp up and get into the swing of the school year. They’ve forgotten more from the year before. It makes a real difference in their progress.” 

Summer hunger also has a serious impact on a child’s future health, leading to expensive problems like diabetes, stunted brain development and heart issues. Darius Robinson, head football coach at a high school in North Carolina, says food is a critical element to building strong bodies, something he’s seen firsthand with his team. “There are some real financial challenges for the families in our town — a lot of my players didn’t have the resources to have a meal every day. Before our summer meals program started, many of my players were really struggling during practice. These guys had the potential but didn’t have the energy levels to play well. When I asked if they’d eaten today, they would say no. Now I send my kids up to grab a meal, they get replenished and get that protein they need in their bodies. It’s been a huge asset.”

The good news: There are programs in place that can feed hungry children when school is out of session. The Summer Food Service Program (SFSP) was created in 1968 to connect kids to food sources during the summer. It’s funded by the United States Department of Agriculture, administered by state agencies and run by organizations like park and recreation services, libraries, schools, camps and churches. 

Despite all of the benefits, however, this program is severely underutilized. Today, only about 15 percent of kids who may need these meals — one in seven —are getting them. Awareness is a major issue; many families simply don’t know that this program exists in their communities. Sometimes there simply aren’t enough sites to meet the needs of hungry kids. Transportation challenges, severe weather (including extreme heat, wildfires and storms) and safety issues can keep many kids from getting the food they need. 

Even in the face of these potential barriers, park and recreation services around the country are stepping up to feed kids in the summertime. When agencies act as feeding sites for their communities, kids are able to get the critical nutrition they need. At the same time, offering free, nutritious meals provides an incentive for many kids to participate in summer programs, keeping their minds and bodies active when they’re not in school. 

Parks and community centers make ideal meal sites because they already encourage children to gather together for activities like sports or art classes. Regulations in the federal meals program state that kids must consume their meals together, at the site where they are served. This means transportation can be an insurmountable issue for many kids in accessing meals; they don’t drive, their parents are working and school buses stop running when school is out of session. Working with programmers at area park and recreation agencies to connect the children enrolled in their summer activities to summer feeding programs can help to break through this barrier. 

Take New Orleans as an example. Before the devastation from Hurricane Katrina, New Orleans had a relatively high number of kids accessing summer food programs because they were offered through summer school programs. After Katrina, schools were split up, buildings and rec centers were destroyed and most of the old sites just weren’t around or offering summer programs. As a result, summer meal participation rates plummeted. Share Our Strength’s No Kid Hungry campaign discovered that, instead, many kids were involved in youth programs and camps offered around the city. Most of these programs, however, weren’t participating in the federal summer meals program. The No Kid Hungry campaign and New Orleans Parks and Pathways, along with the United Way Summer Collaborative and the Partnership for Youth Development, worked separately and together to identify safe, vetted, successful youth programs to serve as summer meal sites. As a result, 57 new sites began offering meals and served more than 71,000 additional meals the following year.

City of Henderson Parks and Recreation in Henderson, Nevada, is another shining example of what can happen when park and recreation agencies team up with state organizations and local nonprofits to ensure kids are getting the food they need. Henderson’s service operated as an open site, serving meals to kids who needed them at all of their locations including two rec centers — one with a pool — and three elementary schools. On average, they were able to ensure that 400 children each day were getting necessary nutrition. 

Making sure families know about free meals is another key piece to the puzzle. Providence Parks and Recreation (PPR) in Providence, Rhode Island, is just one of the many groups working hard to spread the word about summer meals to kids in its community. Last year, PPR teamed up with other organizations like the Providence Children’s Museum, the mayor’s office and others to promote “Providence Play Corps,” a program offering free meals and fun, safe activities in community parks. Their dynamic media campaign, flyers and outreach worked; the team successfully helped feed hungry kids while also helping them play and explore the state’s great parks. 

In 2015, the No Kid Hungry campaign is working at the national level to improve current policies, building more flexibility into the summer meals program and helping it to run more effectively and efficiently in our cities, as well as in our rural communities. Connecting needy children to nutritious food does more than give them a full stomach for a few hours — getting enough to eat sets these kids on a path to reach their full potential. These are our future teachers, scientists and park rangers, if only given the chance. Park and recreation agencies have an important and essential role to play in ending childhood hunger in America. To learn more, click here

Lucy Melcher is the Associate Director of Advocacy for Share our Strength.