While summer evokes warm memories for many of us, too many children in the U.S. - 1 out of 5 - do not always know where their next meal will come from. As a mom, I understand the deep desire to give your kids what they need, yet even the basics are out of reach for many hard working moms and dads during the summer. When the school year takes a break, so do school meal programs and many educational opportunities and safe places to play and exercise.
One of the beliefs that connects many Americans is the importance of academics, physical activity and nutrition during the school year, but because these defining assets are so limited in the summer for certain families and communities, part of that investment is lost. Known as the “summer slide,” low-income children, on average, lose more than two months in math and reading each summer and these losses are cumulative –contributing significantly to the achievement gap. Along with the summer slide in learning, studies have shown a slide in health as well: obesity and food insecurity for children in low-income communities go up disproportionately during the summer.
In recognition of National Public Health Week, United Way Worldwide is bringing attention to the importance of summer and specifically the importance of accessible, healthful food and beverages. The U.S. Department of Agriculture provides financial reimbursement for meals through the Summer Food Service Program, but only about 1 out of 7 eligible kids currently receive the summer meals. That is why United Way, committed partners and volunteers work together to connect children who are particularly disadvantaged to a safe place to eat a healthy meal.
United Way of East Central Iowa, located in Cedar Rapids, convened community stakeholders to talk about the 12,800 children in their community who were food insecure and that only 6% of them were accessing the Summer Meals Program. Thanks to collective action, more sponsors joined, more sites were opened and more children had the nutritious meals they needed. In two short years, they have expanded the program by 148%.
United Way’s Hunger Free King County Initiative is making sure no kid is hungry during the summer months by increasing participation in the Summer Food Service Program “Summer Meals”. In partnership with community-based organizations, local government, and funders like Walmart, they increased the number of meals served by 24% over the last two years. They have done this through investing in new food sites, participating in a multi-tiered outreach campaign to families and community members and increased volunteer mobilization.
Together, we can make a difference. Whether it is advocating for better nutrition in summer programs, increasing the number of safe meal sites, volunteering our time to cook or serve meals, or donating to organizations like United Way to provide access to healthful food, we can not only fill empty bellies, but improve a child’s nutrition, health and educational success, which will benefit us all.