The United States Department of Agriculture’s Summer Food Service Program provides nutritious meals for children from low-income families throughout the summer months. Millions of families access the program at sites across the nation.
Lisa Franks, a single mother with four children in Massachusetts, struggles to cover increased food expenses in the summer. Her children are among more than 400,000 Massachusetts students whose family income qualifies them to receive free or reduced-price lunches at school. U.S. states administer the federally funded summer meal program; in Massachusetts, the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education jointly runs the program with the nonprofit Project Bread, according to Worcester’s Telegram.com.
Franks appreciates both the variety of foods that the program provides and that the program allows some choice in what her children eat. She accesses the program at a high school cafeteria in Webster. The site is one of 68 participating locations in Worcester County. Throughout Massachusetts, nearly 60,000 children received a meal through the program each day in the summer of 2014.
The program served meals at more than 45,000 sites throughout the United States and fed more than 2.6 million children in 2014, states the USDA. The total number of participating sites has increased by nearly 30 percent since 2009. The program served a total of more than 160 million meals in 2014. Over 90 percent of participating sites also offer structured activities for children, such as games, art and educational activities.
In a three-county area of Eastern Kentucky, the Kentucky Communities Economic Opportunity Council administers the summer meals program. A small staff team prepares nearly 2,000 lunches each day for children who partake in the program. The organization received a USDA grant in 2015 that facilitated the purchase of a mobile unit to improve outreach of the meal program, reports the USDA. In Kentucky, at least one in four children lives in poverty; this USDA program helps ensure that these children have at least one nutritious meal each day. Mobile units can increase access by delivering meals to children who do not live near other sites.
Under the Obama administration, the USDA increased its efforts to provide better access to the summer meal program for children in rural areas and Indian Country. In these areas, some 15 percent of families lack sufficient income to consistently meet their food needs. Almost two-thirds of all children in food-insecure families live in rural areas of the United States. Families in these areas often live far away from summer meal program sites, and they may have difficulty finding transportation to these sites. In 2015, the USDA began working with organizations such as Feeding America and the NFL to increase the program’s visibility and to provide outreach services to potential participants in Indian Country and rural areas. The USDA also assigned 60 AmeriCorps workers to support the program, recruit volunteers and increase awareness. 2015 also saw the launch of a website and a smartphone app to help families search for their nearest summer meal program locations.
The benefits of providing nutritious meals to children extend beyond financial and humanitarian support. Studies show that children in families that are food-insecure can suffer from negative effects on health, school performance and cognitive development.
Income level and family size determine eligibility for the program; for example a family of four qualifies if its annual gross income is below $44,863, states Benefits.gov. Participating sites include schools, parks, libraries and private organizations, such as camps and Boys & Girls Clubs. Children must be age 18 or younger to participate.