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Why Are So Few Students Taking Advantage of the Summer Meals Program?

Some 98,500 students across the United States received free or reduced lunches in school during 2016. The number of those students who received the free lunches provided during the summer break paled in comparison at just under 12,000.

For states with an especially high volume of children living under the poverty line, that lack of meals being taken advantage of in the summer months is especially concerning. "In Mississippi one in four kids struggle with hunger and that number is higher than the national average of one in five children so the Mississippi Gulf Coast has a higher percentage of children that struggle with hunger," said Cindy Bloom who works with the Mississippi Department of Education through the organization Feeding the Gulf Coast.

Making sure that children have nutritious meals in the summer months is not only essential for their health, but learning also. Kids need to challenge themselves intellectually over the summer months if they don’t want to fall victim to the summer slide and that’s hard to do when hungry, say educators. "One of the things is that if children are not fed or well-nourished, it can affect so many things, from their health to their learning," said Aimee Beam, who works to provide school children with meals in the summer months.

To help disadvantaged children avoid going hungry over the summer break, The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Summer Food Service Program or Summer Meals, was set up. The federally-funded and state-administered program serves free healthy meals to children under the age of 18 through various sites in the community, such as schools, community centers, parks, and churches.

The program is targeted at low-income children susceptible to going hungry during the summer months, but any child who shows up can get a meal. No pre-signup, paperwork, or rigid set of qualifications required.

Children in Tulsa, Oklahoma were served almost 200,000 meals (breakfast and lunch) through the program last summer, but the number of children taking advantage of the program across the country is still low.

In California’s Solano County, 87 percent of students who participated in free or reduced meals during 2015 didn't take advantage of the summer meal program. Educators believe the low participation number is due to a number of factors such as a lack of knowledge about the program and children not going to the areas where the meals are provided.

The program has been promoted through flyers and door handouts as well as through social media campaigns. No Kid Hungry has worked to spread awareness of the program through Facebook with a simple message explaining how parents can access free meals for their children. Parents can simply text “FOOD” to 877877 to find the closest location.

The Cape Henlopen School District in Delaware has worked to bring the meals to children who may not be able to make it to one of the distribution centers in conjunction with their bookmobile program. "Sometimes, when the trucks pull up, we've seen kids in line already waiting for it to come,” said Beam.

Families looking for a place distributing summer meals can find the closest location through the USDA’s summer meals finder map here.


Article by Joel Stice, Education World Contributor

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