Even though the school year is now underway for America’s school children, what those kids eat during the summer is up for debate as Congress reconsiders reauthorization of the Child Nutrition Act.
The Child Nutrition Act, or the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010,authorizes funding and sets policy for the Department of Agriculture’s child nutrition programs — the National School Lunch Program, School Breakfast Program, Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children, Summer Food Service Program and the Child and Adult Care Food Programs.
While most debate has focused around the nutritional standards of the meals being served through the programs, quieter discussions have been taking place over expanding the reach of other programs such as the Summer Food Service Program and the NSLP Seamless Summer Option.
“Regular access to healthy meals in the summer months is important, not just for health but for students’ academic well-being,” said Kathy Krey, director of research and assistant research professor for the Texas Hunger Initiative through Baylor University, in her written statement before the House Education and the Workforce Committee on April 15.
Of the 19.7 million school children who, on average, participated in the Department of Agriculture’s NSLP on a daily basis during the 2014 school year, only 3.8 million of those kids were served a meal in the month of July over that same year. While the 16 percent participation in 2014 is an increase from the 15 percent in 2013, making it the third consecutive year of growth for USDA’s Summer Nutrition Programs, advocates believe the number is still way too low.
“Higher participation rates in summer food mean more low-income children get the fuel they need to thrive over the summer months,” Food Research and Action Center President Jim Weill said in a news release coinciding with FRAC’s release of its “Hunger Doesn’t Take a Vacation: Summer Nutrition Status Report” in June. “Congress can further this progress in this year’s Child Nutrition Reauthorization law by making strategic and thoughtful investments in the Summer Nutrition Program that bolster their capacity to serve more children.”
The USDA provides funding for the Summer Nutrition Programs through a state agency, usually the Department of Education, giving each state control of the programs it implements to provide reimbursable meals to children in need. Many of the problems plaguing children’s access to free nutritional meals during the summer months include lack of sponsor sites, large amounts of paperwork for those sites and spread-out populaces in rural areas, requiring a high concentration of low-income children in an area in order to qualify to receive meal reimbursement and limits to the number of meals served per day. Participation in the programs vary widely from state to state with Oklahoma serving the lowest percentage of children, 6.7 percent, who participate in their NSLP during the school year to the District of Columbia serving the highest percentage at 59 percent.
The relative success of the DC Free Summer Meals Program can be attributed to many factors. D.C. does benefit from a concentrated city population and strong public transportation system that aren’t readily available throughout other states. However, there has also been an extensive effort made to establish partnerships throughout the district in order to promote and expand the program in order to ensure success.
“The District of Columbia has experienced nine consecutive years of success with the administration of the DC Free Summer Meals Program due in large part to partnerships with all relevant DC government agencies and other members of the community,” according to a statement from Victoria Holmes, communications specialist for the Office of the Superintendent of Education in D.C. “In addition, government agencies, community partners and local advocacy groups, including DC Hunger Solutions, have been critical to community outreach and public awareness throughout the city especially in areas with poor economic conditions.”
One of the OSSE’s biggest partnerships is with the D.C. Department of Parks and Recreation, which ensures all recreations centers are available as meal sites along with sponsoring other organizations who want participate. By sponsoring other organizations the DPR takes on their burden of filing the paperwork required for reimbursement which could act as a deterrent for participation.
“The number one factor [why] we maintained such high participation rates in the program is because DPR can consistently, year after year, not only sponsor all of its rec centers that are eligible for the programs but also extend a hand to the community and sponsor faith based groups, community based organizations, that need food and would not necessarily be able to participate in the summer meals program without that help of a sponsor,” said Alex Ashbrook, director of DC Hunger Solutions, an initiative of FRAC to aide and promote the DC Summer Meals Programs that started in 2002.
In an effort to boost participation in summer meals programs across all the states, the Summer Meals Act of 2015 has been introduced in the Senate by Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., with its companion legislation introduced in the House by Rep. Don Young, R–Alaska. The legislation would lower site eligibility qualifications from requiring 50 percent of the children in an area be eligible for free or reduced-priced school meals to 40 percent, help streamline administrative requirements to provide easier transition from school-year programs to summer programs, increase the number of meals served per child per day and provide travel reimbursement for programs and meal sites in rural areas.
“I introduced the Summer Meals Act because for many of our children, the only meal they eat in a day is the one provided at school. So when summer recess starts, many students go hungry,” Gillibrand said in a statement. “This bipartisan bill would give more children access to quality meals during summer recess by strengthening the USDA summer nutrition program. No child should ever go without a healthy meal.”
Shane Rogers serves as the communications, outreach and development associate for Green Mountain Farm-to-School in the Northeast Kingdom of Vermont and is a former employee of CQ Roll Call.