As the school year winds down, millions of children across our nation are thinking about their summers and eagerly anticipating the last bell.
Yet, for many low-income families, the end of the school year also means the end of access to school lunch and breakfast programs. In a nation where almost 16 million children live in households that are food-insecure, this is not inconsequential. We cannot consign these children to a summer of hunger and expect them to come back to school in the fall ready to learn.
Hunger is a daily reality for millions of Americans, including far too many children, and has negative consequences for individuals of all ages.
However, it is especially harmful for the development and well-being of children. Inadequate nutrition can permanently alter a child’s development. As policymakers, those facts ought to make us wary of making ill-advised and temporary policy changes that may have lifelong impacts. In 2012, 49 million people lived in food-insecure households, including 15.9 million children.
“Food insecurity” is defined by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) as families or individuals who have limited, inadequate or uncertain access to food at points throughout the year due to a lack of money and other resources.
Feeding America’s “Map the Meal Gap” report took a more in-depth look into the issue and found counties in our nation where the child food insecurity rate is as high as 41 percent! In Wisconsin, over 270,000 children (one in five) struggle with hunger, with over 50,000 kids in Milwaukee County alone estimated to be food-insecure.
Our school breakfast and lunch programs are essential tools in the fight to end childhood hunger. These programs help ensure that students’ nutritional needs are met so they can be better prepared to succeed in school.
But what happens to these kids during the summer months?
Many are unaware that we also offer federal summer meals programs for these children, so their nutritional needs are met year-round.
Sadly, summer meals program participation lags drastically behind participation in lunch and breakfast programs during the school year. According to the USDA, while 21 million kids receive free or reduced school meals during the school year, only 3.4 million of these kids get meals through the summer meals program once school lets out.
The result is increased hunger and hardships for families and children who have already been identified as lacking sufficient resources to maintain consistent access to healthy meals.
While there are a number of factors that contribute to this disparity — for example transportation issues that prevent kids from getting to meal locations — stronger outreach efforts by the USDA and others that boosted the number of summer meals served last summer show we can make a difference.
But that same determination can help us fight hunger year round. We can and must pursue public policies that will get us closer to ending hunger, especially among our children.
A healthy and well-nourished student population is critical to our nation’s long term success and well-being. Let’s work to put food on the table for our hungry kids–because having adequate, nutritious food should never be a luxury.
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