Summer break is almost here! I always view the approach of summer break with a mixture of excitement and relief, but also with a sense of apprehension. It is great not to have all the deadlines of school hanging over the household. To have the freedom to take in a movie, spur of the moment, on a Wednesday night or go on an adventure or just not have to worry about whose assignment is due when. The apprehension comes from past summer experiences. Knowing someone will say, usually within the first week, “I’m bored”, which is usually followed by sibling bickering. Or the dread of the daily battle over the amount of electronic use. One thing I have never had to worry about, though, is whether my kids were going to be hungry over summer break.
According to the Feeding America website, 22 million children receive free or reduced priced meals in schools. What do those kids do in the summer when the school doors close? The Feeding America website also reports that only 2.7 million children receive free or reduced priced meals through the USDA’s Summer Food Service Program (SFSP). That is a huge difference in the number of children receiving assistance during the school year and the number receiving assistance in the summer. Some children probably receive meal assistance through other summer feeding programs that are not operated through SFSP, but the number of American children that are likely to go hungry this summer is still staggering. Here in Pennsylvania 80% of the children who qualify for summer feeding programs are not receiving assistance, according to a report by the Food Research and Action Center (FRAC). In my own community, where approximately one third of children in our schools qualified for free or reduced meals, I can only find one program that offers meals for children. It is a Christian-based youth group facility, that offers an afterschool meal during the school year, which they continue during the summer months as well. I have to admit I was a little surprised by the lack of options available, locally, for children on summer break and I find it troublesome.
To be honest, until recently I had not given much thought to what the families of kids in the free and reduced breakfast and lunch program did during the summer to replace the meals provided by the schools during the school year. Now that I know how large the percentage of kids participating in this program is in my local school district and the lack of summer feeding programs in my area, this problem weighs heavily on my mind. Since my eyes are now open to this problem, I’m sure I will see these kids everywhere–in the library, on the playground, passing by on the sidewalk. I wonder if our food pantries see an uptick in the number of families coming in over the summer months, either new clients or previous clients who have not needed to come for a few months. The Chester County Food Bank is currently partnering with the United Way of Chester County in a Peanut Butter and Jelly Drive, so I can only assume they are preparing for this increased need.
While we are talking about kids and lunches, I want to mention the equally troublesome story of Della Curry, an elementary school cafeteria manager in the Denver Metro area, who was just fired. She was fired for giving a first grade student, who didn’t qualify for the free or reduced lunch program, lunch when she didn’t have the money to buy lunch. In an interview she admits this isn’t the first time she has done this and does not regret her actions. In the past few days some questions have arisen about the actual reason Ms. Curry was terminated, but regardless of the reason, this story brings to light the real plight of numerous school children across this country who do not qualify for the free or reduced lunch program, but do not have money for lunch. To be clear, I am not referring to the child who occasionally forgets lunch money. These are children who regularly do not have enough money to purchase lunch or bring one from home. Ms. Curry feels the law governing the free and reduced lunch program needs to be changed. She believes lunch should just be a part of public schooling and available free to all students and has vowed to work to bring about this change.
One school district that recently made this change a reality is Baltimore City Public Schools. All schools in this school district will now offer free breakfast and lunch to every student. Their ability to provide these meals to all students is the result of a federally funded program for school districts where at least 40% of the population is considered low income. This program removes the stigma associated with getting free lunch or breakfast, but more importantly, it will also ensure more children get fed, eliminating the problem Della Curry faced. Finally some good news out of Baltimore! Baltimore City Public School district isn’t the first district to make this change. The program is part of the Healthy, Hungry-Free Kids Act of 2010 and has been made available in certain states since the 2011-2012 school year. This school year just ending (2014-2015) is the first year the program has been made available to all qualifying schools nationwide.
I don’t have any answers or solutions to offer for any of these problems. I just encourage you to be aware. These are kids and they are hungry through no fault of their own. If you are in a position to help, do so. Even if it is only to donate a jar of peanut butter and jelly to your local food bank or pantry.