Summer Meals: Feeding Our Children


The source is DC Farm to SchoolPhoto Credit: DC Farm to SchoolMore than 50 million Americans, including 9.5 million African Americans and 16.7 million children, experience food insecurity. In other words, approximately one-sixth of Americans do not have consistent availability or access to nutritious food. Food insecurity and child hunger can lead to a host of serious issues for children including malnutrition, poor physical and cognitive development, and even obesity. Children without regular access to healthy meals face greater disease risks due to weakened immune systems. Additionally, chronically hungry kids have trouble focusing in school, which can lead to lower educational performance. America’s youth face many challenges; however, child hunger can be avoided.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) Food and Nutrition Service (FNS) administers the National School Lunch Program (NSLP) to increase access to food and ensure that all children are adequately fed. NSLP provides free and reduced price meals for 21 million children the school year. However, for many children of lower-income families, when school ends for the summer, so does access to quality food. The lack of adequate food options for children during the summer can put an additional strain on low-income families, who often spend $300 more on food during the summer months.

To address summer hunger, the USDA also administers the Summer Food Service Program (also known as the Summer Meals Program) to provide meals to children when school is out. However, despite continued eligibility, only about a tenth of children that are eligible for free or reduced meals during the school year receive meals during the summer. In 2012, the USDA and its partners served approximately 3.5 million children per day through USDA’s Summer Meals Program—far fewer than the 21 million who participate in NSLP during the school year.

The FNS has sought to close this gap and increase participation in the Summer Meals Program in several ways, including advocating for legislative and policy changes that make it easier to operate the programs, researching the barriers that prevent children from participating, and engaging stakeholders on best practices.

Federal Action

In 2010, Congress passed the Healthy, Hunger Free Kids Act to reauthorize the federal Child Nutrition Act. The bill was also a key component of First Lady Michelle Obama’s Let’s Move initiative. The Healthy, Hunger Free Kids Act provided FNS with greater flexibility to work with states to increase participation in child nutrition programs, including the Summer Meals Program. Through this increased flexibility, FNS has reduced barriers to participation by streamlining requirements in the Summer Meals Program for school districts and other organizations. FNS encourages creative ideas for feeding children in the summer, such as mobile sites. FNS is also piloting a project in 2013 to more directly serve meals to children on days when extreme heat makes it difficult to operate at outdoor sites.

FNS launched its Summer Meals Campaign in order to increase the number of meals served nationwide by 5 million this summer. The campaign seeks to provide additional training and technical assistance for state agencies through the FNS national and regional offices. Technical assistance includes discussion of state policies and procedures and review of program flexibilities and best practices that could improve program operation. FNS staff will also facilitate discussions between state agencies and state and local partners, such as school administrators, parks and recreation officials, and advocacy groups to improve collaboration and reduce lapses and inefficiency.

USDA Undersecretary Kevin Concannon sent a letter to 10 states with guidance for performance improvement and offering technical assistance: Alabama, Iowa, Kansas, Mississippi, Kentucky, Louisiana, Nevada, North Dakota, Texas, and Oklahoma. The FNS campaign is targeting another five states to collaborate with, in hopes of increasing number of meals served by 10 percent: Arkansas, California, Colorado, Rhode Island, and Virginia. These states were selected to represent a diverse array of community types, demographics, and hunger issues. The FNS campaign seeks increased collaboration between selected state agencies, local program sponsors, and community stakeholder groups in order to determine barriers to participation and identify strategies to improve participation rates.

State Children Receiving Summer Meals in 2010 Children enrolled in NSLP in 2009-10 school year Percentage of NSLP Children that received Summer Meals in 2010 2010 State Rank Children Receiving Summer Meals in 2011 Children enrolled in NSLP in 2010-11 school year Percentage of NSLP Children that received Summer Meals in 2011 2011 State Rank
Alabama 27,508 352,638 7.8 46 26,488 355,833 7.4 47
Iowa 13,758 153,461 9.0 42 14,889 159,345 9.3 42
Kansas 10,438 174,767 6.0 49 11,858 181,538 6.5 50
Kentucky 27,038 315,517 8.6 43 25,193 320,928 7.9 46
Louisiana 24,728 376,579 6.6 47 35,067 380,050 9.2 43
Mississippi 16,045 294,410 5.4 50 19,788 294,695 6.7 49
Nevada 31,291 128,117 24.4 6 12,266 151,800 8.1 45
North Dakota 2,353 27,747 8.5 34 2,560 28,120 9.1 44
Oklahoma 11,097 283,905 3.9 51 10,949 292,891 3.7 51
Texas 208,980 2,276,283 9.2 41 221,188 2,342,390 9.4 41
United States 2,815,058 18,689,237 15.1   2,790,776 19,161,494 14.6  

Source: Food Research and Action Council,

Child hunger is a major issue in many African-American communities. Black legislators play a vital role in this work to provide healthy meals to at-risk children. FNS encourages state legislators to help ensure their respective states best utilize Summer Meals to fight child hunger and provides resources and information to state legislators for the program. Resources provided include facilitating meetings with state commissioners and governors, hosting town hall meetings to share information on local sites serving meals, encouraging local organizations to participate in summer feeding, and supporting innovative approaches.

The USDA Summer Meals Program is a proven way to help our children, especially our most vulnerable, get the food and nutrition they need during the summer.  Ensuring children have the tools to succeed is not just the responsibility of parents, but of the entire community, including elected leaders.  Increasing access to and participation in the USDA Summer Meals Program is just a first step, and until all children are no longer hungry, our work continues. 

  • USDA Summer Meals Program is a program administered by the United States Department of Agriculture Food and Nutrition Service aimed at providing adequate meals for children in the summer.
  • The National Hunger Hotline 1-866-3-Hungry or 1-877-8-HAMBRE  is a national hotline providing information on the location of summer feeding sites.
  • Share our Strength is a national campaign that seeks to end childhood hunger by connecting kids to healthy food and teaching families how to cook healthy, affordable meals, and investing in community organizations that fight hunger.
  • The No Kid Hungry Center for Best Practices is provides tools and resources to help elected officials and their staff, educators and community leaders fight childhood hunger.
  • Food Research and Action Center is the leading national nonprofit organization working to improve public policies and public-private partnerships to eradicate hunger and under nutrition in the United States. 
  • Feeding America is a national network of more than 200 food banks and domestic anti-hunger organizations.

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