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School’s Out For Summer: Where Will 22 Million Kids Get Their Meals?

June 29, 2016Posted by Linda Hernandez

Across the U.S., one in five children face hunger, which adds up to about 22 million children from low-income households nationwide who depend on school lunch programs for nutritious meals—so when classes end for the summer, many kids and their families worry about when they’ll eat next.

Fortunately, a number of organizations around the country are stepping up to help fill as many lunchboxes as they can by providing lunch for children across America during July and August.

Some initiatives start out small and local, as it did when Larry Clark founded a little league initiative twenty years ago in Little Rock, Arkansas. It wasn’t long before he noticed that his pint-sized players couldn’t concentrate on the game because they were hungry.

“In the summertime, if they didn’t have anywhere to go, they wouldn’t have breakfast, lunch, or snack,” says Clark. “I started the program to make sure they eat.”

To do it, he teamed up with his local church, and, eventually, No Kid Hungry, a division of the national nonprofit Share Our Strength, which works with community groups, activists and food programs to help provide children facing hunger with nutritious food. On most days after school, Clark will help feed about 80 kids. That number jumps to as many as 130 a day during the summer.

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By partnering with hundreds of organizations like Clark’s across the country, No Kid Hungry is able to recruit new summer meals sites, reach out to low-income families, and offer grants to support the start-up, operation and expansion of summer meals programs.

About an hour away in Hot Springs, Arkansas, Jill Story also started a summer meals site with support from No Kid Hungry. Story owns a physical, occupational, and speech therapy center and provides on-site meals for kids in her community.

According to Story, a mother who regularly visits the facility with her two kids told her, “If you all weren’t here, we would only eat once a week. I hate it, but that’s just the way it is.”

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While United States Department of Agriculture-sponsored summer food service programs around the country offer nutritious lunches during the break, according to both No Kid Hungry and Feeding America, there is a huge discrepancy between the number of children receiving school lunches — 22 million nationwide — to the number getting meals during the summer — only 3.9 million. The gap for many low-income families is the result of lack of access to meal sites, especially in remote or rural areas.

For others, it’s a perceived stigma. When describing response to a food bank’s program in Alaska that gives out backpacks filled with food, Feeding America Spokesman Ross Fraser says, “Teenagers are often reticent to take these backpacks because they don’t want their peers to think that they need help.“

The Child Nutrition Reauthorization Bill and other pending legislation may offer alternate hunger solutions, like providing additional EBT cards (an electronic system that allows state welfare departments to issue benefits via a magnetically encoded payment card) in the summer for families to purchase food that would typically be provided at school.

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In the meantime, 127 of Feeding America’s nationwide network of food banks plan to distribute 9.5 million summer meals at 5,000 sites, like public parks, fire stations, libraries, and post office lobbies.

One of those programs includes New York’s City Harvest, an organization that, during the summer, deploys mobile food trucks to beaches, parks, community pools, city housing complexes, and playgrounds to provide free lunches to children 18 and under in a city where 700,000 children depend on free meals during the school year.

“No parent should have to choose between feeding their children or paying for housing and other basic necessities,” says David DeVaughn, Senior Manager of Policy and Government Relations for City Harvest.

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City Harvest also has a special “Fruit Bowl” program, which provides students with fresh produce and dairy products.

We are a small afterschool program that has now been able to provide something that was not necessarily affordable for us, which is fresh fruit and yogurt on a daily basis. It has allowed them to try new fruit that they were scared to try,” says Mary Sanchez, from the Community Youth in Action After School Program.

“The kids are excited to take fruit home to their families. Many of them have trouble feeding their kids altogether, let alone receiving fresh fruit, and this helps.” 

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During the spring campaign, “Skip Lunch, Fight Hunger” New Yorkers are encouraged to donate the cost of their weekday lunch to help support the organization’s work during the warmer months. This year, the campaign raised nearly $850,000, enough to help feed tens of thousands during the summer months.

“Food deliveries are especially vital during the summer months. when we see an increase in school children and their families visiting our soup kitchen and food pantry,” said the program’s executive director, Anthony Butler.

Adds DeVaughn, “As long as hunger exists in New York City, City Harvest will continue to be a reliable source of food.”

City Harvest Images Courtesy of Mika Arava and Dan Enrico

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