Do you know where your next meal is coming from? For many children during the summer months, the answer to that question is no. Every summer, thousands of children rely on healthy, nutritious meals provided through the Department of Agriculture’s Summer Food Service Program (SFSP). That’s why I found new research released this month by the Food Research and Action Center (FRAC) very troubling.
According to FRAC’s annual report, Hunger Doesn’t Take a Vacation, fewer children participated in federal summer nutrition programs in July 2011 than at the same time the previous year. Last summer, only 1 in 7 of the children who depend on free or reduced-price school lunches through the National School Lunch Program during the school year received a summer meal. Since 2008, participation in SFSP has dropped by 112,000 children nationwide—a significant figure when you consider that the Summer Food Service Program is already underutilized compared to the better known National School Lunch Program.
FRAC blames the decreased participation on tightening state and local education budgets. As state and local governments slash funding for programs such as summer school and youth programs, fewer children are able to access services such as the Summer Food Service Program. Therefore, fewer summer meals are getting into the hands of children.
So how can we, as afterschool professionals, ensure that all kids have access to healthy meals during the summer months? If you run a summer program and do not already participate in the Summer Food Service Program (SFSP), consider offering meals this summer. Participating in SFSP is not difficult. If another program in your area is a sponsor, you can partner with them to become a site. As a site, you are only responsible for providing meals to your students. The sponsoring organization is administratively responsible for running the program; they take care of the paperwork and will supply the food. School districts, parks and recreation departments, and large youth development organizations like Boys & Girls Clubs and the Y are often sponsoring organizations.
The Afterschool Alliance is doing considerable work to increase access to and participation in the Summer Food Service Program and the At-Risk Afterschool Meals Program. AmeriCorps VISTA volunteers placed in California, Maine, Michigan, New Jersey, Oklahoma and Virginia are working hard to raise awareness of these important programs. We are also working closely with Afterschool Ambassadors in several states to help them start up summer and afterschool meal programs.
To learn more about implementing the Summer Food Service Program in your program, be sure to check out the USDA’s Summer Food Service Program toolkit.