A child collects a free summer meal from a truck in the Flushing neighborhood of Queens, New York. AP Photo/John Minchillo

Throughout the U.S., policies around providing meals for low-income children fail to reach 85 percent of those in need.

When the final bell announces the start of summer, the 21 million American children who rely on free or reduced-cost lunches during the school year will look ahead to what Lucy Melcher, the associate advocacy director for No Kid Hungry, calls “the hungriest time of the year.”

The federal Summer Food Service Program (SFSP) was launched in 1968 and designed to provide children from low-income families with subsidized meals during the months when school is out of session. But that food only reaches about 15 percent of kids in need.

The problem, Melcher says, is that “poverty today is very different than poverty was 40 years ago.” At the time when the U.S. Department of Agriculture introduced the SFSP, low-income areas were primarily clustered in cities, and the program, according to No Kid Hungry, developed as a “one size fits all” response that is no longer effective today, when poverty is increasingly dispersed throughout rural, suburban, and rapidly gentrifying mixed-income areas.

Central to the structure of the program is the stipulation that children must travel to a designated site to access and eat their meals. While this model has proven effective and even beneficial in places like San Antonio, where the local Boys & Girls Clubs offer educational classes, sports, and field trips around the free meals, in other places, lack of access to transportation poses a barrier to much-needed food.

Additionally, only predominantly low-income areas—where at least 50 percent of children qualify for free or reduced-price lunch during the school year—can apply for designated SFSP sites. This, Melcher says, poses a particular problem in areas like Silver Spring, Maryland, where it’s not uncommon for a low-income housing development to sit right at the border of a very affluent neighborhood.

For those families whose children can’t, for any of the above reasons, access the free lunches, summers can be a dire time. The Washington Post detailed how the months without school strap the finances of a mother of four, who found help through a mobile meal site in rural Tennessee:

When her kids were in school, they ate a total of 40 free meals and 20 snacks there each week — more than 25,000 government-sponsored calories that cost her nothing. Her $593 in monthly food stamps usually lasted the entire month. They ate chicken casserole and ground beef for dinner. But now, with school out, she was down to $73 in food stamps with 17 days left in the month. “Thank God for the bus,” she said, but even that solved their problems for only one meal a day.

The reauthorization deadline for the Child Nutrition Act—of which the SFSP is a part—fell on September 30, 2015. Congress bypassed it, leaving programs continuing to run “on autopilot” in their current form, which was set during the last reauthorization in 2010. While the House and the Senate are each currently moving forward with delayed reauthorization legislation, “every year that Congress pushes this back is a missed opportunity to make some much-needed changes,” Melcher says.

For a number of years, advocacy groups like No Kid Hungry have been pushing for policies that would substantially ease access to the meals offered through the SFSP. Recommendations include instituting take-home and delivery options in underserved areas, akin to how Meals on Wheels operates for senior citizens. But strongest among the proposed changes, says Diane Whitmore Schanzenbach, the director of The Hamilton Project, is the option to provide funds for summer meals through EBT cards similar to those used in programs like SNAP and WIC.

The USDA ran three pilot Summer Electronic Benefits Transfer for Children programs in a mix of rural, suburban, and urban areas from 2011 to 2013. The pilots tested the efficacy of the model for families participating in both SNAP and WIC at two different cash value rates—either $60 per child per month, or $30. A 2013 report from the USDA noted that at both dollar amounts, “in the 14 participating sites, SEBTC unambiguously and substantially advanced the intervention’s main goal, reducing children’s very low food security (VLFS-C) in the summer.” The cost of the program is comparable, the report added, to the cost of the free school-year lunches and breakfasts provided under the National School Lunch Program and School Breakfast Program, and because the program attaches to individuals, rather than to districts, “an area could still be very poor, but gentrifying, and this would allow children to retain access to food,” Schanzenbach says.

Simply put, Schanzenbach says, summer EBT works. The policy question at this point, she adds, “is not, ‘should we or should we implement this program?’ It’s ‘how should we implement it?’”

AP Photo/Elaine Thompson

A bill that passed through the Senate Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry Committee in January would allow states to administer benefits to low-income families through Summer EBT; it also would enable delivery and take-home options for children in certain areas. The Senate bill drew bipartisan support and, according to No Kid Hungry, contains “the strongest improvements to the summer meals program in more than 40 years.”  

While advocates like Melcher believe this legislation shows promise, it will have to find a middle ground with a more concerning reauthorization proposal that passed through the House Committee on Education and the Workforce this week.

While the House bill suggests a small roll-out of Summer EBT, “it needs to be larger,” Melcher says. And the suggested improvements to the SFSP come laden with some proposals detrimental to the larger picture of nutrition assistance, which include raising the poverty threshold for schools to participate in the Community Eligibility Program (CEP)—a move that would deprive 3.4 million children of free lunches, No Kid Hungry senior director for advocacy Duke Storen said in a statement. The latest version of the legislation also includes a provision block-granting school meals in three states, which in no way guarantees they will be allocated in a way that addresses specific community needs.    

Improvements to the summer programs should not come at the expense of children’s nutrition during the school years, Schanzenbach says. When it comes to hungry children, the policy should “really go big,” she adds, and scale up to the magnitude of need, rather than persist with programs that only reach a fraction of their intended audience. “That is not the America we want to live in,” she adds.

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