Filling the Nutrition Gap with Summer Food Programs

June 21, 2012

by Alyse Festenstein, HSC's Go for the Gold intern

Summer in Chicago is here, and for 400,000+ CPS students this means not only a two-and-a-half month break from class instruction, but also time away from school breakfast and lunch. Eighty-six percent of CPS students qualify for either free or reduced-price meals based on family income; the meals they eat at school through the National School Lunch and Breakfast Programs provide the fuel students need to focus and fully participate in school. That need for healthy meals does not end with the last school bell.

Nationally, school food leaders are recognizing the challenge this poses for millions of American families. In a recent USDA blog, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack highlighted the importance of addressing children’s nutritional needs throughout the year. “Proper nutrition is critical for a child’s ability to learn, grow, and be ready to achieve their dreams – and hunger is one of the most severe roadblocks to the learning process,” Vilsack wrote. “Lack of nutrition during the summer months may set up a cycle for poor performance once school begins again and can make children more prone to illness and other health issues year-round.”

To address the challenge of ensuring children are well-nourished through the summer months, the USDA implemented the Summer Food Service Program (SFSP) in 1975. The program is administered at the state level by state education agencies like the Illinois State Board of Education and sponsored locally by organizations such as schools, summer camps, or community non-profits. These groups can provide free nutritious meals to children 18 and younger in communities where at least half of the resident families earn incomes at or below 185% of the Federal poverty level.

In addition to SFSP, the USDA has rolled out a new program, The Seamless Summer Option, to encourage school food providers to continue service throughout the summer and during school holidays.  The assistance these programs provide is vital for low-income families, especially because research shows greater food insecurity during these summer months. Last year, over 4,700 sponsors participated in the program and served more than 137 million meals to kids in need of a healthy meal through the summer break. Because of efforts to increase sponsoring sites, Secretary Vilsack notes that these numbers are expected to grow this summer.  

While there is undeniable need for SFSP program in the Chicago area and across the nation, both national and state wide data indicate that the program is underutilized and many children are not receiving the services they need. Most recent statistics show that during the summer proceeding the 2009-2010 school year, only 14.3 children in Illinois participated in the program for every 100 children in the National School Lunch Program (NSLP), which is fairly consistent with the national averages. This participation rate actually represents a 15% increase from the previous year and a 25% increase in the number of sponsoring sites throughout the state. Somehow the overwhelming majority of children in need are not accessing these summer food programs.

The crucial question remains: why are children not receiving these healthy meals in the summer?

It’s a complicated issue, but there seem to be many more variables involved during this time that prevent children from getting their meals. According to a study conducted by National Food Service Management Institute, barriers to program success exist both from the sponsor’s point of view and that of eligible children. Sponsors cited the volume of paperwork and unprepared staff as the main reasons they might not want to continue with the program. Additionally, they reported that many children could not participate because they lacked transportation, or their families did not know about the program or its benefits. The 2010 Healthy Hunger Free Kids Act made slight changes to SFSP that may help address these barriers in the future.  Schools are now required to help with summer food outreach, sponsoring agencies will see a decrease in required paperwork, and there is no longer a cap on the number of sites or children served.

Organizations in many U.S. cities are working together to design creative, local programs to ensure children in their community are able to have healthy meals this summer. New Haven Connecticut’s Tim Cipriano, the executive director of school food services, has been featured in the news recently for the city’s new food truck program. By delivering meals to children and harnessing the buzz around food trucks, he is addressing the transportation issue and stigma associated with summer meals at school. His idea has inspired other school districts, and this summer he plans to serve 40,000 bagged lunches. Chicago has also taken steps to improve summer nutrition. Through the effort of The Chicago Summer Food Work Group, participation rates have increased 9% in the last year alone. The group worked to include informational fliers in all backpacks of CPS students and collaborated with the Illinois State Board of Education to develop a mapping tool used to target the neighborhoods in greatest need.

Hundreds of locations across Chicago will sponsor free meals and snacks for children this summer. For information regarding locations and dates of program service, contact the Illinois Hunger Coalition at 1-800-359-2163 or visit the Chicago Housing Authority website for an interactive map of sponsoring sites. Let’s work together to make sure our children have healthy meals this summer and can return to school ready to learn in the fall.