When the school year ends and summer begins, kids across the nation look forward to enjoying no more tests and no more classes. Unfortunately, for far too many kids that Mountaineer Food Bank serves in West Virginia, the summer also means no more reliable access to school breakfast and lunch.
Children consume up to 50 percent of their total daily calories at school during the school year – but when school is out for the summer, millions of children who rely on school meals have less food support they can look forward to. Without school meals, a summer of fun can become a summer of hunger, leading to increased risk of experiencing short- and long-term health consequences and summer learning loss.
Summer feeding programs do exist to support kids, but they are only as strong as their ability to reach children. This year, Congress can make a difference by passing strong child nutrition legislation that improves summer nutrition programs to ensure our kids have the food they need to grow, learn, and thrive – regardless of the time of year.
The Summer Food Service Program (SFSP) is a federal food program that provides snacks and meals during the summer to children who are low-income – and it also has a striking access gap. In fact, prior to the pandemic in 2019, only around 17 percent of eligible children across the country received a meal through a summer feeding program. As Feeding America estimates that 19 percent of kids may experience food insecurity this year in West Virginia due to the pandemic, reducing the SFSP coverage gap should be a top-tier priority for our communities.
One way lawmakers on Capitol Hill can make investments in summer feeding is by strengthening summer feeding sites. Right now, community-based organizations like Mountaineer Food Bank must switch between government programs from the summer months to the school year, and back again, in order to help feed kids when they aren’t in school – a move forcing summer meals providers to spend more time on paperwork versus providing food. Providers must also contend with tough area eligibility requirements that constrict the number of available SFSP sites. By allowing providers to run SFSP all year long and by reducing the area eligibility threshold, respectively, providers would be able to seamlessly offer meals all year, and more programs would be able to operate summer feeding.
Additionally, it’s critical that lawmakers provide alternate options for helping to feed kids when school is closed. Two potential game-changers: Providing a summer grocery card to provide families with children with extra food dollars to supplement household budgets and allowing non-school providers to use non-site-based food delivery models to make it easier to provide meals to children, especially those in hard-to-reach areas.
Mountaineer Meals launched in 2017 to help ensure our kids have access to nutritious meals throughout the summer. Partnering with libraries and Family Resource Networks, the summer feeding program serves Braxton, Calhoun, Mercer, and new this summer, Clay, counties.
Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, each site averaged about 10 to 15 participants. Such as many aspects of life, the pandemic changed the way Mountaineer Meals operated and who it served -- for the better. With flexibilities put in place for safety of clients, staff, and volunteers, such as non-congregate meal settings, meal-time variations, number of meals provided at each visit, as well as allowing a parent or guardian to pick-up meals, Mountaineer Meals participation and impact sky rocketed.
During the summer of 2020, Mountaineer Meals served 746 kids in Braxton County, 520 kids in Calhoun county, and 150 kids in Mercer County. Let’s take these lessons learned and make summer feeding more efficient for kids in West Virginia and throughout our country.
We all agree: No child should go hungry during the school year, the summer, or ever. After all, there is nothing more essential than providing our future leaders with consistent, nutritious food, and investing in kid’s nutrition will provide a pay-off we will see today, as the nation gets back on our feet, and for years to come. We call on Congress to use the tools at their disposal to end child summer hunger once and for all.
Caitlin Cook serves as Director of Advocacy and Public Policy for Mountaineer Food Bank