On Summer Vacation and Hungry
Of the 22 million students who receive free or reduced-price lunch at school, only 14.1 percent are served summer meals. Summer remains the worst time for children’s hunger.
It’s a muggy August afternoon as I meander through a maze of apartment homes in Ypsilanti, Michigan, to find where a group of kids will be eating a free meal. Near the leasing office of the apartment complex, Sycamore Meadows, I spy a small tent. Bright orange yoga mats, trimmed to fit children, lie under it. Some of the children those mats are intended for are riding tiny bikes in the parking lot, mostly spinning in circles. This is one of thousands of sites in communities across the country where children can eat for free during the summer.
Hunger during the school year has largely (though not entirely) been addressed thanks to the National School Lunch Program (NSLP). But summer vacation is a different matter. The program that provides meals at Sycamore Meadows, the federal Summer Food Service Program (SFSP, or Summer Meals) was started as a pilot in the late 1960s and officially established in 1975, to ensure that children who ate free or reduced-priced meals during the school year remained fed during the summer months. At an “open” site like Sycamore Meadows, any child under the age of 18 can come and receive a free meal.
In order to attract kids to sites, most program sponsors lean into the joy of summer vacation, offering fun programming or at least activities like jump rope or sidewalk chalk-drawing. Today, besides the chalk, it’s story time with a librarian from the Ypsilanti District Library across the street, and then a singalong.
Sentra Brownlee, a mother of four who lives in the area and who helps coordinate this site for the Michigan-based anti-hunger nonprofit Food Gatherers, has made it her mission to publicize this program and get children to it. It’s helpful for her as a parent—four lunches she doesn’t have to worry about many days during the summer—and for most of the families who live at Sycamore Meadows, which is subsidized housing. Today, about 16 kids gather on the yoga mats, but earlier in the summer, at the height of the program, they served as many as 100 kids for lunch or snacks.
As Brownlee and I are talking, another woman walks toward the leasing office. Brownlee pauses midsentence and turns to the woman: “Hey, you have any kids? They can come here to get free meals during the summer.” The woman nods: She knows. Her kids have eaten there.
But Brownlee’s efforts at this site both mask and illustrate the problem with SFSP. For all she has done to publicize Summer Meals, knocking on doors and handing out flyers, there are kids in other areas who need a program like this and have never participated. Energy like Brownlee’s is necessary for the program to succeed, but that commitment—which certainly exists across the country in many communities—is a finite resource.
Of the 22 million students who receive free or reduced-price lunch at school, only 14.1 percent—one in seven—are served summer meals. In other words, the program has not satisfied its intention of replacing the NSLP during school break: Summer remains the worst time for children’s hunger. And despite efforts to ramp up access to summer meals during the Obama administration, the number of kids served has fallen since 2016.
According to a recent report by the Food Research and Action Center (FRAC), in July 2018 (July is the most popular month of the program), almost 2.9 million lunch meals were served in the nutrition programs operating during the summer—the Summer Food Service Program, and for those few students in summer school, the National School Lunch Program. That’s a decrease of about 171,000 meals as compared to July 2017.
You may assume that this program is another casualty of a Trump administration bent on destroying the social safety net in the name of personal responsibility. The truth is a little like the program itself—complex.
The Summer Meals program, which is not well known across the country and rarely covered in the media, is not a major legislative priority, and while that generally keeps it out of the crosshairs of conservative budget-cutters, it’s also a problem. Food Gatherers may serve meals at more than 30 sites across Washtenaw County in Southeastern Michigan, but the federal program model at large is outdated and ineffective. Nonprofits, schools, and Food and Nutrition Service career staff may come up with creative work-arounds, but the program’s structure limits them from serving all the kids who need food during the summer. Compared with the school meal program, Summer Meals is largely failing.
“What we’re doing now is not enough,” says Kevin Concannon, who was undersecretary of food, nutrition, and consumer services for the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Food and Nutrition Service (USDA FNS) during the Obama administration. “[T]he collective efforts of the federal government, state government, nonprofit sector, and schools are not enough to address the issue of food insecurity for children, particularly in the summer months.”
THE NATIONAL SCHOOL LUNCH Program was enshrined into law in 1946 as both a response to the malnutrition seen in potential soldiers during World War II and a way to prop up farmers, who were producing more food than the country needed. Many young men were rejected from the military as a result of hunger; therefore keeping kids fed was “a measure of national security.” Congress figured they could address this problem by feeding kids agricultural excess that the government purchased from farmers—supporting American agriculture and American kids. Today, most kids from low-income families eat free or reduced-priced lunches at school, ensuring that kids are fed each day and that their families have smaller food expenses. (School breakfast, a less popular program, is offered too.)
One mark of a successful program is that its existence is not really challenged. Most of the time, when school lunch as a program is attacked from the right, it’s due to its strict nutrition standards (case in point: the Trump administration has already loosened many of them), not the program itself. For most of the year, kids can reliably get fed at school for two meals a day.
But what about the rest of the year? The United States, of course, for the past century has had a system of giving children the summers off school, originally to allow wealthier children to join their families on vacation, and to account for the lack of air conditioning in classrooms. With school no longer in session, there was no clear and easy national distribution program in operation to ensure low-income kids were fed during those months.
There’s been a lot of research on summer learning loss in between school years, which is generally stronger for lower-income kids than higher-income ones. One reason could be discrepancies (or lack thereof) in summer programming for kids based on income. And food insecurity and hunger probably play roles in this “summer slide” for kids who rely on NSLP throughout the school year, too. So if SFSP is clearly needed … why does it reach so few kids?
There are numerous reasons. Besides the fact that kids at school are a captive population, Summer Meals suffers from the program’s extremely complicated structure.
“It is a pretty intense program to run—and communities restart them every summer,” says Crystal FitzSimons, director of school and out-of-school time programs at FRAC. In order to serve meals, a meal site must have a sponsor, which can be schools or nonprofits. Every year, the sponsor must re-apply to the state child nutrition agency (typically the education department) to serve meals at its sites. It is then reimbursed for each meal that’s correctly served to a child.
That “correctly” bit is important, because a site has some complicated requirements too. Most significant is what’s called “congregate feeding,” which means children must eat at the site and they must all eat together—no picking up a meal and taking it home, no delivering meals to kids at home. This requires that children travel to the site itself to eat. If a child takes a meal and runs off with it, the site cannot claim that meal for reimbursement.
There were good intentions on the part of this policy. For one, it’s good for kids to all eat together, form social bonds, maybe participate in a summer activity. And allowing kids to take fresh food off-site could spell problems—what if the kid waits to eat their meal, and it goes bad? Better to ensure the kid eats their food under the watchful eye of an adult.
But this requirement also severely limits the reach of the program, given that children must physically reach a site. Rural areas with limited public transportation are particularly affected. The eligibility requirements for “open” sites, where any child can come to the site and eat, also disproportionately affect rural areas. In order for an open site to even be eligible to serve meals, at least 50 percent of children in a given geographical area must be eligible for free or reduced-priced school meals during the school year. This makes serving meals much harder for those children who live in poverty where it is not as concentrated—like rural areas. In 2003, a comprehensive study of SFSP found that just about a quarter of sites were located in rural areas; there is no strong evidence to assume that this percentage has since changed significantly.
At Sycamore Meadows, I ask LeRonica Roberts, the community food programs coordinator at Food Gatherers, if most of the kids’ parents have any idea that these meals are funded by SFSP. She doesn’t think so—though they probably have an idea that it has something to do with school lunch. Of course, they don’t really need to know about the ins and outs of the program: One benefit of the design is that parents don’t need to be there. Children are not required to check in or write their names down, allowing the program to be part of the infrastructure of summer events and programs without parents and children realizing it’s targeted toward low-income kids. Any child can come and eat.
But this also means that families are less likely to know about the program at all, realize that it’s the government helping them, and point to the Summer Meals program as a positive benefit in their lives. This political buy-in is important for any program to succeed and to be a legislative priority.
Established in 1975, Summer Meals seems to have been designed with a very specific idea of economic need in mind: urban poverty. In urban areas, kids can more easily walk or take the bus to a site, and there is more infrastructure—more summer programs, more churches, more schools. Poverty is more likely to be concentrated, because the people are concentrated.
In the 1970s—and continuing today—often when people think of a stereotypical family in poverty, they think of a black family in an inner city. The Summer Food Service Program seems to have been designed according to stereotype, even though today poverty in all its varied forms looks quite different from that racist assumption. Rural rates of poverty have always been higher than poverty rates in metro areas. But implementing summer nutrition programs in rural areas runs into roadblock after roadblock.
BECAUSE OF THE LIMITATIONS of SFSP, and in the absence of legislation that would ease them, the sponsors that run the programs, the state agencies that implement them, and the federal staff that guide all of it must be extremely creative. Local organizations have always looked to new strategies to reach kids, but federal support is also key.
“Summer requires a pretty intensive call to action every year … there really needs to be an aggressive outreach campaign to let families know where meals are available,” says FitzSimons.
Under the Obama administration, USDA FNS outlined an ambitious strategy to expand Summer Meals, and ended up serving more than 80,000 sites, Concannon tells me. But he adds a qualifier. During the school year, nearly 100,000 schools in the U.S. participate in the school lunch program—for about 180 days a year. Some summer sites are open all summer, but others are open for just a few weeks, or even just one day.
“Just the number of [summer] sites alone would have you believe we’re doing a better job,” Concannon says. “But because many of them are counted as one of those sites but only open for a short period, it doesn’t do much to predictably address hunger or food security for kids.”
Still, the increase in sites led to an increase in children fed.
For Markell Miller, director of community food programs at Food Gatherers, SFSP “requires us to find existing [places] where we know kids are already congregating,” because they must eat their meals on-site. “We are not able to reach all of the kids because of the congregate requirement,” she says, “particularly in communities without public transit.” The school buses many kids rely on during the school year are absent during the summer.
Concannon tells me that the administration identified libraries and health centers as areas where low-income kids were spending their time, and therefore as perfect places to focus collaboration on serving summer meals. FNS career staff and state staff were essential in developing these partnerships—something I am well aware of because, full disclosure, I briefly worked at FNS.
According to the FRAC report, the state with the highest amount of participation—besides the District of Columbia, which is an urban area better suited for the program—is Vermont. One in three children who eat free or reduced-priced school meals during the school year are served via SFSP in the state. I spoke with Becca Mitchell, child nutrition initiatives manager at Hunger Free Vermont, to try and learn some of the state’s secrets. Their challenges are similar to other states with rural and suburban areas (that is, every state).
Hunger Free Vermont has focused on overcoming the difficulties that lie in transporting kids to sites as well as the stigma inherent in assistance programs like SFSP. Some cities have sites that kids can walk to, like parks in Burlington. But other areas are spread out, and sites might be miles from one another. Mitchell’s organization has worked to overcome this challenge by utilizing mobile feeding sites—bringing the food to the kids instead of the other way around. A bus with meals may have a set route each day, and drive around to several sites, dropping off meals and staying with the kids for half an hour, then moving on. Sometimes these sites are at places like libraries, where built-in programming might be available.
Mitchell does not believe that her state’s high success rate with SFSP should be celebrated without reservation. “Compared to most other states in the nation we’re doing well,” she says. “But we’re still only reaching a handful of the kids we should be reaching.”
Fun programming attracts kids on their summer vacation, but fun programming can be pricey. It’s especially difficult for smaller towns lacking huge budgets for summer camps. FitzSimons, of FRAC, tells me that during the Great Recession, participation in Summer Meals actually went down despite heightened need for anti-hunger programs, because state and local budgets couldn’t afford the summer programming that’s often concomitant with SFSP. This stands in contrast to programs like SNAP, as well as school lunch and school breakfast, that expand when need increases.
Unlike smaller nonprofits, Food Gatherers is able to use a good amount of external funding to improve their summer programs. This funding allows them do things like send kids home with backpacks filled with food over the weekend, or utilize local foods in their menus. Those meals, served off-site, are not paid for by the federal government, but by outside donations.
Another benefit to adding programming to sites is that summer programs are a normal part of communities. SFSP, then, becomes an expected and necessary program that fits into the structure of the season, and reduces the stigma attached to getting a free lunch from the government. It attracts kids who might not need the meals and makes the kids who do need the meals feel more welcome. Building relationships with organizations that can offer enrichment activities for kids not only gets them fed but helps them learn, too.
Hunger Free Vermont “ha[s] been working to make [SFSP] a program that feels inclusive and welcoming to everyone,” Mitchell says. “You get a free meal, but it’s also a place where kids can go to be safe and socialize, [and there’s] also enrichment opportunities,” she says. The universality makes it “feel like a community resource and not just something that low-income families have to go to.”
UNDER THE OBAMA administration, expansion was the outright goal of FNS. The agency website read in 2016 (accessed via the Internet Archive): “Increasing access to summer meals for children in low-income areas is an important priority for USDA.” But today, after describing the expansion efforts from years before, FNS is clear about their current direction: “Moving forward in 2017 and beyond, FNS is focused on maintaining continuity of program operations and access.”
That doesn’t necessarily signal an assault on Summer Meals. The Trump administration has, without much fanfare, slowly cut back on the nutrition gains made in the school lunch program (perhaps in a handout to the agribusiness that will benefit from, for example, fewer restrictions on milk served). But SFSP has more or less been left alone. There have not been any significant threats to the program on the federal level; it’s hard to attack a program exclusively focused on feeding kids. As FitzSimons notes, the program “hasn’t been as much of a focus under the current administration.”
However, the language used to describe the program, and the messaging surrounding it, has changed. There’s “just a different approach [to] talking about the program,” says Mitchell. She feels that, in lieu of a focus on expanded access, there’s more focus on “program integrity,” which in legislative speak means reducing fraud. Mitchell argues that fraud isn’t really a prominent issue in the program.
In an April hearing before the Senate Committee on Agriculture, then-FNS administrator and acting deputy undersecretary (and now deputy undersecretary) Brandon Lipps outlined the priorities for the child nutrition programs, stating the agency was aiming “to improve customer service for our partners and participants, to protect and enhance integrity, and to strengthen the bonds between FNS programs and self-sufficiency” (emphasis mine). He also called the participants of child nutrition programs “student customers,” in a nod to the run-the-government-as-a-business framework.
When I mention the focus on program integrity as a major priority to Concannon, he is noticeably uncomfortable. “Of course you want programs to comply with the general federal regulations,” he says. Indeed, his administration too worked to reduce fraud in the nutrition assistance programs (as part of an Obama initiative called the Campaign to Cut Waste). Though program fraud is quite rare, preserving “program integrity” is often pointed to as a necessary objective in order to keep political support for programs intact. But even so, says Concannon, “you first and foremost want to promote the effectiveness and impact on the lives of children and households.”
Even if it’s just messaging, Mitchell is wary. An intentional focus on “fraud” and “self-sufficiency” (they’re kids!) could, she says, “re-stigmatize some of these programs,” after all the work done to make them feel warm and inclusive.
At best, it seems like promoting continuity is promoting the status quo, because the complexities and limitations inherent to Summer Meals require aggressive intervention and focus.
Though the approach of the political appointees at FNS could have had an effect on falling participation, one cannot point to merely one reason. Another explanation is simple: Weather is becoming more extreme. The Summer Meals program was designed in 1975, but we live in an ever-warming world. Many sites, by virtue of necessity, require kids to sit outside together in the summer. Sometimes the heat is too much, especially in Southern states. Even rain will keep kids away. FNS allows heat waivers for some sponsors to let kids eat meals off-site if the temperature gets too high, but that’s more paperwork for a site to fill out. Sometimes, it could just be easier to close for the day.
In addition to the actual weather, the Trump administration has also created a climate of fear with its immigration policies. This has had a palpable effect on use of public-assistance programs like SNAP and Medicaid. It is reasonable to assume that this “chilling effect” also extends to SFSP. Especially in immigrant communities, there is a fear of public spaces, and the ICE agents that could disrupt them. To avoid ICE, or the ire of immigration officials who can decide who stays and who goes, parents could intentionally be keeping their children from any place where the government is providing a benefit, even though all children should ostensibly be welcome at Summer Meals sites.
FOR ALL ITS LIKELY AMBIVALENCE about the program, the Trump administration has continued a demonstration project that many advocates see as vital, and perhaps as the future of the program. In 2011, FNS began testing a new method of feeding kids over the summer, the Summer Electronic Benefit Transfer program (Summer EBT). Instead of kids needing to travel to a site and eat meals there, their families were provided with an EBT card, like what’s used in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, commonly called food stamps) to use at grocery stores. Available to small populations in a handful of states, the options tested by FNS include both a SNAP model of benefits (benefits can be exchanged for almost any food item) as well as a Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) model (benefits translated into an approved food package that families could buy at the store).
The results have been promising. FNS commissioned a 2016 report on the demonstration by Abt Associates, Mathematica Policy Research, and Maximus. They found that, among child recipients of Summer EBT, the most severe food insecurity was cut by one-third. Food insecurity in general dropped by one-fifth.
A handful of states had been participating in the demonstration project, but it’s scaled back on the number of states to serve more children in fewer states. This summer, Michigan, Wisconsin, the Chickasaw Nation, and the Inter Tribal Council of Arizona participated, and will continue to do so for at least the next two summers. Some lawmakers representing states that lost out on funding to implement the program were upset, but as it’s a demonstration program with a focus of gathering data, the new, streamlined focus does seem fair. Strangely though, FNS has stopped announcing the Summer EBT grantees over the past two years, letting the program continue to fly under the radar.
THOUGH THERE ARE DISTINCT complications and challenges baked into SFSP, there is a way to loosen the rules. Congress is in charge of reauthorizing the statutes that govern the child nutrition programs, including Summer Meals. The last time they did this was in 2010 with the passage of the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act. That expired in 2015 (though of course, the programs continue to operate). Child nutrition reauthorization (CNR) failed to pass in 2016 due to partisan disagreements, though before 2010, reauthorizing the nutrition programs for children had typically been bipartisan.
Some signs point to a 2019 Congress ready to pass a new CNR. When the Senate returns in the fall, it could be ready to mark up a bill. Several bipartisan marker bills have already been introduced.
Some of the elements of these marker bills are exciting. There could be real opportunities to open up flexibilities for Summer Meals—maybe loosening the congregate feeding requirement, easing the eligibility requirements for sites, or expanding Summer EBT. That’s what advocates are gunning for.
The Stop Child Summer Hunger Act, sponsored by Democratic Senator Patty Murray of Washington, would expand the Summer EBT program nationwide to all children who receive free or reduced-priced lunch at school; their families would receive an EBT card with $150 per child for the summer. Its cost is entirely offset by closing a business tax loophole.
The Hunger-Free Summer for Kids Act is another marker bill, co-sponsored by Republican Senator John Boozman of Arkansas and Democratic Senator Patrick Leahy of Vermont. It would allow states flexibility on the congregate feeding requirement or allow them to implement some version of Summer EBT (though details are vague; the Stop Child Summer Hunger Act is definitely more aggressive on the Summer EBT front).
FitzSimons says that FRAC also supports lowering the eligibility requirement for summer sites from 50 percent free and reduced-priced lunch participation to 40 percent. This would expand the number of sites able to serve kids, especially in rural areas where just one family moving out of the district could completely change access for hundreds of kids.
To ensure that kids actually get adequate nutrition, FRAC recommends that sites be allowed to serve three meals a day—right now, sites can only serve two. That seems unlikely to get past lawmakers obsessed with “self-sufficiency,” but it would go a long way to fight hunger. The Summer Meals Act of 2019, marker bills introduced by Democratic Senator Kirsten Gillibrand of New York and Republican Senator Lisa Murkowski of Alaska in the Senate and Republican Representative Don Young of Alaska and Democratic Representative Rick Larsen of Washington in the House, would lower the eligibility threshold from 50 percent to 40 percent and also allow sites to serve three meals a day.
If the content of these bills makes it into the final CNR—and it actually passes—the summer meal programs could be well on their way to serving their mission. Eliminating red tape and funding effective alternatives like Summer EBT challenges the bureaucracy and paperwork that get in the way of ensuring that children are adequately fed.
“The concept of feeding kids seems so simple,” Mitchell says. “And it should be.”