For many American children, summer vacation means sunshine, hot days and freedom from homework and early bedtimes. But for millions of kids and their families, it also brings fear. How are they going to eat during those three months?
More than 30 million children ― roughly 54 percent of America’s school kids pre-K through grade 12 ― receive free or reduced-price lunches at more than 100,000 schools and child care centers. The U.S. Department of Agriculture program provides free lunches for those whose family incomes are at or below 130 percent of the poverty level and reduced-price lunches for kids whose family incomes are between 130 percent and 185 percent of the poverty level. Many of the same students also participate in free or reduced-price breakfast programs.
In other words, we live in a nation where tens of millions of children rely on government assistance to eat lunch for nine months of the year. And their need doesn’t go away when the last bell rings in June.
Low-income parents often struggle to feed their kids during the summer. Families who rely on Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program benefits don’t get extra money just because school is out, and low-wage jobs don’t come with a summer bump in the paycheck. Some may even decide it doesn’t make sense to keep working ― especially if the cost of child care for younger kids negates the income their job (or jobs) brings in. But if they stop working, they risk losing their family’s SNAP benefits.
Figuring out which food to buy to make those dollars stretch is tough as well. You want the food to be nutritious, but that kind of food is often more expensive, and preparing it may require kitchen tools you don’t have. Many nutritious foods also have to be consumed quickly, meaning more frequent trips to the store. That’s not easy if you live in a food desert, work inconsistent hours or don’t have access to a car.
Parents also want to buy their kids food that they will actually eat and that they can prepare themselves if mom and dad have to be at work during meal times. Processed food usually fits that description, even if it is less healthy. It also has a longer shelf life, which means you can take advantage of those 2-for-1 and buy-1-get-1 deals that stretch your food dollars.
“Our child poverty rates ... are some of the highest in the developed world, and more than half of our children cannot afford school lunches.”
Jen England is senior program director at 412 Food Rescue, a Pittsburgh-based nonprofit that collects food from local businesses and sends it to distribution centers like shelters or food banks. She said they see an increase in requests during the summer months from the partners they donate to.
The USDA does run a summer lunch program for students in need, but it serves only a fraction of the kids who participate in those programs during the school year ― fewer than 3 million children compared to more than 30 million children. And the summer program’s 154 million lunches served pale in comparison to the more than 3.5 billion meals that are covered during the school year.
It’s logistically more difficult for children to take advantage of summer meal programs, England said. Younger kids need a parent or older child to bring them to the centers during the hour or two when meals are available, but it’s difficult to impossible for working parents to take that time off. Older children must be independent and self-sufficient enough to get themselves to the centers ― and to get there on time.
Isolation also plays a role. The 1960s model of urban housing projects ― which still make up a significant portion of public housing in the U.S. ― put these units in areas with limited public transportation and not much access to food stores. There are school buses to get kids to school and thus to the meals provided at school. But as England noted, those disappear during the summer. Rural areas are affected, too: Centers that serve summer lunches can be miles away from a child’s home, and reliable internet access is needed to research their locations and serving times.
We also can’t forget about the millions of families who live on the edge of food insecurity, meaning a single financial setback could make it difficult ― or even impossible ― to afford enough to eat. Plenty of Americans who can’t afford to miss work still don’t qualify for food assistance programs like SNAP or free and reduced-price lunch programs. A broken-down car, illness or injury can turn their food situation precarious.
“The summer program’s 154 million lunches served pale in comparison to the more than 3.5 billion meals that are covered during the school year.”
Proposed changes to benefits like SNAP, including those in the 2018 farm bill, would make an already problematic situation worse. The bill would create additional paperwork hurdles and require adults to prove they work at least 80 hours per month unless their dependent children are under the age of 6. There would be no exceptions for those taking time off to care for school-age children during summer vacation, even when kids are sick. And most low-income workers do not have paid sick leave. The bill would also eliminate states’ ability to let certain people keep their benefits when they get pay increases that would potentially make them ineligible.
Congressional supporters of the proposed changes to SNAP argue that these new rules would ”lift Americans out of poverty.” The Trump administration is proud of the country’s record-low unemployment rates, but these numbers belie the unstable nature of much low-income work. The administration also ignores increasing income inequality that punishes lower-income Americans.
Most of our country’s economic growth since the Great Recession has been concentrated at the top, and without legislative action, that’s where it is likely to stay. Real wages for lower-income workers have remained stagnant or even fallen over the last 30 years. Our child poverty rates, which hover at around 22 percent, are some of the highest in the developed world, and more than half of our children cannot afford school lunches.
Millions of American kids live in food-insecure households. Millions more live in households on the brink of food insecurity. These children depend on free or reduced-price lunch programs during the school year. In the summers, though, many go hungry.
Shouldn’t our administration be a bit more disturbed about that?
Julia Hudson-Richards is a food activist and historian who studies the environment, food and the people who produce it. Her work has appeared in the Journal of Women’s History and the Bulletin for Spanish and Portuguese Historical Studies.