As August draws to a close millions of children nationwide are trading in their bats and balls for backpacks and books as they head back into the classroom. For some families this end of Summer season is a bittersweet end to carefree sun soaked days. However, for other families the end of Summer is a welcome return to accessing free, nutritious and regularly provided meals for their children via the National School Breakfast and Lunch Programs: the National School Lunch Program is serving more than 21 million children during the school year, but USDA data indicates that only 3 million children are being served through Summer Food Service Program (SFSP).
This summer Feeding America staff visited summer meals sites across the country to celebrate the work of our network and see first-hand the impact of our network food banks, using Con Agra Foods Foundation Hunger Free Summer grant funds, on closing the Summer meal gap by providing free nourishing meals to kids in safe environments. What we found during our travels was that our network food bank staff are innovators and true advocates for summer food programs such as SFSP. This year were working hard on growing the number of kids they connected with free and healthy food and worked tirelessly on getting the word out to their communities.
For example in St. Mary's Food Bank Alliance in Arizona, a state with a childhood food insecurity rate of nearly 30% the food bank has established innovative partnerships with libraries and health centers as SFSP feedings sites to great success. While one health center visited provided meals to kids in the waiting room area (convenient for families as they waited to connect with health care services) another health center had converted their staff break room into a warm welcoming environment complete with flowers, bright colors, cartoon characters and the ability to chat with a nurse who selflessly gave up her own lunch hour to supervise and socialize with the incoming families. This particular site also provided kids with free books which they could take home to read.
Island Harvest, serving Long Island, NY has been pairing the distribution of free food via their mobile pantry program with the provision of free summer meals to attract more families to their feeding sites. They also have a robust nutrition education component to their summer programming and send their nutritionist and nutrition interns out to sites to lead nutrition lessons and cooking demonstrations. For examples we got to see kids excitedly discuss how delicious smoothies made by Island Harvest staff as a were delicious even though the nutritionist had added leafy greens like kale into their banana strawberry smoothies.
In St. Paul, Minnesota, Second Harvest Heartland is providing funding to support local organizations in the twin cities in providing more meals to children. Just looking at the colorful food-truck style lunch bus made me hungry and was equally successful attracting kids at the park to come have a meal. The food bank has also launched a massive, targeted outreach campaign, including neighborhood canvassing and bus ads, so families know where they can find great feeding sites like the lunch bus.
Redwood Empire Food Bank in Santa Rosa has been working harder every year to fill the ever-widening summer meal gap in their community. Not only are they providing nutritious, appetizing meals — some of which were bento-box style! — they also provide really comprehensive enrichment activities for the children coming to their sites so these children are receiving much more than a meal. Volunteers conduct garden based nutrition education such as growing lettuce heads to take home and be incorporated into salads and using magnifying glasses to identify bugs that are healthy for gardens. One of the biggest hits, though, is the smoothie bike that has a blender attached and is powered by the kids pedaling. The children were all smiles as they pedaled as fast as they could and then excitedly sampled their strawberry-banana smoothie success.
Thanks to the great work of these and many other food banks and community organizations, instead of a summer filled with hunger, these children were able to look forward to nutrition meals and fun activities. Now they will be much better prepared to return to school ready to learn!
Hayley Beers and Kathryn Pfefferle are on our programs team focused on child hunger solutions.
To learn more about the problem of childhood hunger visit Map the Meal Gap, the report shows that in 2011 there was a national increase in children living in food insecure households — up to 16.7 million compared to 16.2 million in 2010.