Hunger Doesn’t Take a Summer Vacation

For so many families, summer means road trips to the beach, hikes at Texas state parks and days at the neighborhood pool. But, far too many low-income parents spend the summer months worrying about how they will stretch their lean budgets to feed their children the breakfasts and lunches they would normally get during school. For more than 2 million children in Texas, school meals are their most consistent source of healthy food — 1 in 4 children in Texas lives in poverty and their families struggle to afford food. Rather than summer being a carefree time for children to relax and have fun with friends, childhood hunger nationwide and in Texas begins to climb when schools close their doors.
To help ease poor families’ worries, the federal Summer Nutrition Programs provide healthy meals and snacks to children in low-income areas. While summer schools, churches, food banks, summer camps, city parks and other sites in Texas do participate in the Summer Nutrition Programs, they only reach a fraction of the children who normally rely on school meals during the school year. Of the 2.3 million children in Texas who receive free or reduced-priced lunches during school, just 12 percent of those children get summer meals, according to the Food and Research Action Center .

Believe it or not, this is an improvement — participation grew by 21,000 children in 2013. In 2011 the Texas Legislature passed a bill requiring more schools in high-poverty neighborhoods to offer meals during the summer and to do so for at least 30 days. And the United States Department of Agriculture, the federal agency that administers child nutrition programs, has focused more resources on boosting participation in Texas. But despite the intense effort, 2 million children in Texas do not have access to the meals they need to stay healthy.
Transportation is a consistent barrier keeping children from getting summer meals. In a sprawling state like Texas, it is often difficult for low-income families to get their children to places that serve free meals without the school buses they rely on during the school year. And with not enough free or low-cost summer programs for kids in most of the state, too many children are left at home during the summer, cut off both from enriching activities and the nutritious meals that come with them.
Texas must do its part in the fight to end child hunger in our state. With more than 1 in 11 children in the United States calling our state home, and more of our public school students living in low-income households, we must do more to ensure they are getting the meals they need to stay healthy and focused. Research has continually shown that children who are well-fed perform better in school. Specifically, we have found that when Texas invests in child nutrition, kids do better overall.
School districts need adequate resources in order to feed more students during the summer. When the state fails to invest in schools, summer food and transportation become an easy target for budget cuts. Community organizations are working to provide meals but are also struggling with administrative barriers and limited resources.
We must fully invest in our schools and expand the availability of programs for low-income kids this summer to make sure kids have access to healthy meals. Hunger doesn’t take a summer vacation.
This was published earlier in the Austin American-Statesman on June 3rd, 2014.
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