by Justin Bigelow,
National Human Services Assembly
What has the power to feed 3 million children, improve nutrition over the summer months, and improve school attendance? Summer meals, naturally.
On October 08, several NHSA members—including the Afterschool Alliance, Boys and Girls Clubs of America, and YMCA of the USA—co-sponsored a briefing on summer meal programs with the Food Research and Action Center (FRAC) and the National Recreation and Park Association. The briefing highlighted the benefits of afterschool and summer meals for low-income children, and detailed the potential impacts of the Summer Meals Act of 2014 (S. 2527/H.R. 5012).
The purpose of the bill is to strengthen and expand access to Summer Nutrition Programs (SNP) that currently help to address childhood hunger and obesity experienced by low-income children over the summer. Presently, an area must have 50% of children qualifying for free or reduced-price school meals to access SNP. The proposed legislation will reduce this threshold to 40%, allowing for a greater number of children to be reached, and it would put SNP in line with other federal programs such as Title I and the 21st Century Community Learning Center programs. The act would also streamline afterschool and summer meal programing, decrease paperwork, and encourage greater participation year-round. It would also provide transportation grants to overcome lack of access for rural low-income children, and it provides enough funding so that sites can serve a third meal.
Citing the most recent numbers available, Crystal FitzSimons, Director of School and Out-of-School Time Programs at FRAC, stated that in July 2013, approximately three million children ate summer lunch through SNP each day. While that’s a large number, it represents just 1 in 7 of the low-income children that utilize free or reduced-price lunch during the school year. Elena Rocha, Director, Youth Development Partnerships and Policy at YMCA, noted that children are 2-3 times more likely to gain weight over summer due to a lack of nutritious foods. The current summer programs offered by local YMCAs offer food and enriching activities to “keep the children full: body, mind, and soul.” The enriching activities include nutrition education, STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) activities, and supervised play.
Anthony Ruby, Principal at Holabird Academy Elementary and Middle School in Baltimore, believes that his school’s breakfast and afterschool meal programs directly correlate with the academic improvement and decreased absence rates among his students. Holabird has an absence rate of 3%, compared to the Baltimore city average of 25%. Principals like Ruby feel strongly about free and reduced-price food programs because when over 90% of their students qualify for nutrition programs, these programs play a significant role in supporting the educational success of their students.
Terri Kerwawich, Program Director for Philadelphia Parks and Recreation, discussed her department’s summer meal programs, which last summer served over 2.6 million meals over 10 weeks and fed approximately 30,000 kids a day. In addition to department run sites at parks and community centers, summer meal programs have evolved to meet children where they are with the “Play Streets” program. At 650 sites around Philadelphia, a sponsoring adult or organization oversees the distribution of meals on blocked residential streets that allow children to play safely in their neighborhoods.
Programs like these address the nutritional needs of low-income youth and offer strong models for how organizations can meet families where they are. Simplified administration and additional reach proposed by the Summer Meals Act would allow programs to serve more children. For more information on the Summer Meals Act go here (FRAC page, includes state by state impact maps).