It's summertime, and with summer break comes the laughter of carefree children in many neighborhoods... But not all of them. When the final school bell rings, millions of kids head home to empty refrigerators.
During the school year, 21 million American children qualify for free or low-cost school meals from school lunch programs. But when school ends, so do these reliable meals. Kids right here in the United States are going hungry this summer, wondering where their next meal will come from (we call this "food insecurity"). How can they enjoy a summer of just being kids when their stomachs are growling? That's just it - they can't.
At Feed the Children, we know that hunger is the enemy of childhood. I see firsthand what happens to children living with poverty and hunger around the world. The statistics are overwhelming: lack of nutritious food stunts the growth of one in four children. It may be difficult to believe, but in our own backyard, hunger is equally as prevalent (though it looks different). Our home state of Oklahoma is ranked 51st for kids experiencing summer hunger and is plagued with high rural and urban food insecurity rates.
There's no reason children should go hungry these days when we have enough food for everyone. So why aren't things better? We know one reason: The nonprofit system is broken from the way we've worked alone, to the way we've raised money, to the way we've shared what we're doing, to the way we've fed kids. We can't defeat child hunger the way we've always done things. We have to change, so that's what we're doing.
We have to unite against this enemy. We will work alongside similar groups, support innovative startups to discover more effective ways to work, and share our successes so they can copy and spread what works to help many more kids. We want to encourage thinking in new ways, taking risks and learning from our failures.
This summer, we're focusing on ending child hunger in Oklahoma by trying a new public-private partnership. The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) has a Summer Food Service Program (SFSP) that helps fill the gap over the summer, but in Oklahoma, very few agencies are involved with the summer meals program. SFSP also requires that kids eat their food at approved feeding sites - they can't take it to go. This keeps many families from getting food - for example, some are not able to drive to a site.
This is a structural barrier we are trying to remove by piloting a new Summer Food and Education Program. Our pilot project's goal is to give families food when and where they need it by giving 115,000 meals in food boxes that kids can take home. We will also help these children keep up with their peers through an educational component that will help them excel during the school year. We'll provide coloring books, worksheets, reading materials and backpacks filled with school supplies to those in need of resources. Throughout the summer, we will also test innovative activities designed to help children understand the importance of nutrition, fitness and health. Additionally, we will conduct a study to learn why some low-income parents send their children for the meals while others do not. All of this work is to uncover the root cause of child hunger in Oklahoma. We will use it to set up future programs to reach more families in need.
This USDA pilot will give us evidence-based research that we can share with other food relief agencies. If successful, we want to expand our work with the USDA and run the Summer Food and Education Program across the U.S.
Hunger is robbing our children of the joys of childhood. We won't beat it unless we challenge the status quo and change our broken system. We're making the USDA pilot in Oklahoma a learning lab for every group trying to solve hunger, and we need our peers to share too. Tell us what you know is working and not working. Partner with us. We need to come together as one - volunteers, nonprofits, corporate and government programs alike - to go beyond treating the symptoms of hunger to attacking its cause.
It's time to erase each and every child's fear of not knowing where their next meal will come from. It's time to help kids be kids.
Kevin Hagan is president and CEO of Feed the Children.