Don’t Take Hunger along on your Summer Vacation
June 18, 2015
Minerva Delgado, Director of Coalitions & Advocacy, Alliance to End Hunger
I recently heard a summer camp director say he was taken aback upon hearing one boy’s answer to his typical question to the children as they were leaving camp, “What were your favorite parts of the summer?” He was expecting the answer to be horseback riding, swimming, playing baseball or any of the other activities the children had enjoyed that summer. However, the boy simply answered, “breakfast, lunch, and dinner.” It was a moment that stuck with the camp director as a reminder that eating 3 meals-a-day can be a luxury for many of the children in his community during the summer.
The Summer Food Service Program, or Summer Meals, provides reimbursements to participating organizations for serving healthy meals to children at no charge during the summer months. Last summer, approximately 3.2 million children participated in the program. That’s 161 million meals served at 45,200 sites. Summer meals sites are among the most accessible federal nutrition programs, where children up to age 18 can go right in and have breakfast or lunch without any applications or restrictions.
While the number of children served by SFSP has increased significantly in recent years, it pales in comparison to the 15.7 million children living in food insecure households across the country. Why does only one child in six who needs summer meals receive them?  What can be done to improve access to this vital resource?
One issue is the insufficient number of meal sites and providers to meet the need. Maybe the children who need summer meals live in remote locations where you don’t find the organizations that typically serve summer meals. Perhaps they live in areas that do not meet the income threshold to have sites that are open to the public. Or maybe there are organizations that would like to participate but are hampered by the program rules.
From my experience at a small food bank, I can tell you the Summer Meals program can be difficult to operate. I once wanted to operate a Summer Meals site in conjunction with a mobile food pantry operation. Unfortunately, I ran into a wall with one rule that says that the meals have to be eaten on-site, as opposed to being taken home or to another location. Our mobile food pantry operated out of a parking lot; there was no place for children to eat the meals. At the time, I was very frustrated that we couldn’t find a way to help feed more hungry children when there was a clear need–especially since the food bank is located in a suburban community that was not eligible to operate public sites.
While there are many organizations that have the capacity to meet all of the programs rules and provide safe, enriching environments for children to learn, play and eat during the summer, it is clear that more must be done to address the unmet need. Many children lose ground during the summer because they don’t have access to consistent, healthy meals. The consequences of not improving the Summer Meals program are severe. In addition to suffering and anxiety children experience when they haven’t had enough nutritious food to eat, researchers point to spikes in food insecurity during the summer and educators lament “summer learning loss” come Fall.
Congress now has the opportunity to make significant changes to improve Summer Meals as part of Child Nutrition Reauthorization (CNR). Improving access to this program is imperative. Ideally Congress will consider many of the recommendations being made by organizations like Share Our Strength, Feeding America and Food Research & Action Center. It is important to increase flexibility in the program models to engage even more children because children shouldn’t have to take hunger along on their summer vacations.
 Food Research & Action Center, Hunger Doesn’t Take a Vacation: Summer Nutrition Status Report, June 2015.  ‘Open’ sites are one type of SFSP site where free meals are provided to any child at the site. No registration is required to attend the meal site. Sites may operate as an open site if they draw their attendance from a school in which 50 percent of the children enrolled are eligible for free or reduced price school meals. Census data may also be used to document that the site is located in an area where at least half of the children in the area live in a household whose income is at or below 185 percent of the federal poverty level. For more information, see http://www.fns.usda.gov/sfsp/summer-food-service-program-sfsp.