The COVID-19 crisis separated families from loved ones, ended lives prematurely, and caused millions of Americans to lose their jobs. In the first few months of the coronavirus pandemic alone, over 22 million U.S. workers lost their jobs. As of December 2020, even though many previously furloughed or laid off employees had returned to work, there were still 10 million fewer U.S. jobs than before the pandemic.
In school districts across the country, before COVID-19, many families struggled to make ends meet and put food on the table. The COVID-19 crisis exacerbated financial woes for Americans living at or below the poverty line, and middle-class families simply stretched financially thin. When parents need to choose between heating their homes, paying rent, or putting food on the table—an impossibly heartbreaking decision.
As our nation struggles to recover financially from a global pandemic that has lasted more than a year, school leaders need to understand how families in their school district might be struggling to put food on their tables and ensure they have access to local, state, and federal aid—because no child should go to bed hungry.
The Issues of Food Insecurity in Our Nation
According to Feeding America, a U.S.-based nonprofit made up of a nationwide network of more than 200 food banks that feed more than 46 million people through food pantries, soup kitchens, shelters, and other community-based agencies, during the school year, 22 million children rely on the National School Lunch Program for free and reduced-price meals. However, during the summer months, with school out of session, meal assistance disappears for children in need. Less than four million children receive meals from the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) Summer Food Service Program. That leaves 18 million children who may not know where their meals will come from during each day of summer vacation.
It is no surprise to educators and school leaders that when a child is not properly nourished, they cannot adequately focus on learning. Also, food-insecure children may be at greater risk for health risks such as stunted development, anemia, asthma, oral health problems, and hospitalization. Studies also link food insecurity to a poorer physical quality of life, preventing children from fully engaging in daily activities. While at school, food-insecure children are more likely to fall behind their peers academically and socially.
Fortunately, there are programs and nonprofit organizations committed to helping close the gap during the summer months to ensure that every child has access to consistent, healthy meals to enable proper development and nourishment.
To help you connect families in your school with hunger-advocacy resources, below we provide reputable resources and trusted entities for childhood summertime meal assistance.
Summer Childhood Meal Assistance Programs
- Free Summer Meals for Youths Through the USDA. In March 2021, the USDA announced plans to ensure all U.S. schoolchildren experiencing food insecurity—an estimated 12 million children—will have access to free meals this summer. The USDA operates a Summer Food Service Program (SFSP), a federally-funded, state-administered program. SFSP reimburses program operators who serve free healthy meals and snacks to children and teens in low-income areas.
- Check with Your Local Food Bank. Regional food banks typically offer programs to support families—and particularly children—in need during summer months when school-supplied meals are unavailable. Contact your local food bank and ask for information that you can provide to families in need.
- Work with Your PTA to Build and Stock a Little Free Pantry. Borrowing the little free library’s take-a-book-leave-a-book model, little free pantries are popping up across the country. Built and maintained by nonprofits, faith-based organizations, schools, and individuals, little free pantries operate on a simple model: leave what you can and take what you need. If your community does not already have one, if not a network of little free pantries available for families in need, talk to your parent-teacher association about managing an initiative to build and maintain a little free pantry on school property. The building of such structures typically averages $500, and with community support, they can be maintained permanently, ensuring local children have access to small meals and snacks throughout the summer (and school year).
- Reach Out to Local Nonprofit Organizations. In addition to federally-funded programs and grassroots little free pantries, nonprofit organizations exist across the country committed to the battle against food insecurity. Check with local faith-based organizations, regional nonprofits, YMCAs, and other entities to investigate if they offer meal assistance for local communities. By partnering together to share information about hunger-assistance offerings, your district can help close the gap between families in need and generous and supportive philanthropies.
No Child Should Go to Bed Hungry
Summertime is hunger-time for far too many children. While schools are committed to developing children academically, emotionally, and physically throughout the year, no school leader or teacher expects their investment in their students to end when summer begins. By connecting families in need with summer meal assistance programs, you can enable every student in your district to return to class in the fall well-fed, well-nourished, and ready to learn.
Photo by Allison Shelley for EDUimages