Summer Nutrition Programs Heating Up

By Helly Lee

As children, many of us looked forward to summer breaks from school as a time for spending long days in the sun with our friends and family. However, for millions of American children, summer can mean losing access to the regular meals that they have during the school year.  A recent report released by the Food Research and Action Center (FRAC) reiterates the importance of summer nutrition programs such as the Summer Food Service Program (SFSP) and the National School Lunch Program (NSLP) because they serve millions of low-income children each year during these summer months.  These programs provide nutritious meals for low-income children who may otherwise go hungry in the summer months when they are not in school.

The report reveals that in 2013, the Summer Nutrition Programs grew to serve nearly 3 million children, an increase of 161,000 children from 2012 and the largest percentage increase since 2003.  This participation growth in 2013 can largely be attributed to the commitment that the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) made to prioritize participation in summer nutrition programs.  In partnership with key nutrition advocates, USDA’s goal of increasing the number of meals served by 5 million from the previous year was surpassed by an additional 2 million (7 million more meals were served in the summer of 2013 than in 2012).

While this is great news that more children who need access to summer nutrition are using these programs, there’s more to be done to improve the programs to serve even more children and some harder to reach populations. The programs served millions more in 2013, but they still only reached 1 in 7 children who needed summer meals, according to the FRAC report.

Nutrition is vital to the cognitive and physical health and development of children.  Children need nutrition to learn in and out school, and a summer break is not an exception for when nutrition is a necessity.  Research has shown that well fed-children tend to be healthier overall and are sick less often, have fewer developmental problems, and have lower obesity rates.  Ensuring that children continue to receive the nutrition they need in the summer months will help them to come back to school in the fall healthy and ready to learn.

The forthcoming reauthorization of child nutrition programs, expected in 2015, provides Congress the opportunity to further strengthen a number of vital nutrition programs including summer feeding programs.  Members of Congress have already started to introduce bills that would improve these programs.  These include Senator Murray’s Stop Child Summer Hunger Act which would provide families with children eligible for free or reduced-price school meals with an electronic benefit transfer (EBT) card for the purchase of food during summer months and Representative Dina Titus’ Helping Hungry Students Learn Act.  These and other proposals leading up to reauthorization will be critical in setting the stage for 2015.

School may be letting out soon, but the heat is on to ensure that millions of children do not go hungry during the summer months.