There has been a lot of attention the last few years to the food we are serving our children in school. We passionately debate things like whole grains and sodium content or the availability of fresh fruits and vegetables.
We also appreciate the attention that our food banks receive for our popular BackPack programs. There is wide support for this effort to send a backpack of food home with needy children on Fridays to help them eat through the weekend.
What is sadly and strangely missing from that conversation is a discussion of what we are feeding children over the summer, and unfortunately the answer is not much.
Over 671,000 low-income children in North Carolina receive lunch assistance during the school year, but just 98,000 will be able to participate in feeding programs this summer. Research has found that children consume up to 50 percent of their total daily calories at school during the school year. What happens to children whose families dont have the resources to make up that 50 percent on a summer day?
North Carolinas Feeding America Food Banks and other charities do their part to try to close the summer hunger gap by operating summer feeding programs throughout our state. But there is currently no way we will be able to reach the 85 percent of kids not being served without greater flexibility in the ways and places we are allowed to reach them.
For example, program regulations dictate that we can feed children only if they consume that meal at the program site. We do our best to open sites in areas of concentrated need, but we cant open a site down the street from every needy family. Then think of the challenge this presents in rural counties like Swain, Robeson and Northampton.
In many if not most parts of North Carolina, families might have to travel long distances to reach the nearest program. The roundtrip fuel cost and lost work time may outweigh the cost of the lunch their child receives. If a program is open only in the morning and mom works the early shift, her kids are out of luck if the site is beyond a safe walking distance from their home.
Charities like ours could do far more to protect North Carolinas children from hunger if we had the choice of operating a summer program that matches our communities needs. Instead of requiring that children travel to a site each day to eat a meal, what if the food bank could send them home with several days worth of meals once a week or give the family additional groceries in the summer so they could prepare meals at home?
Current rules do not allow such creative approaches. Some may remember the good lady in North Carolina who traveled school bus routes during the summer delivering food at each stop to waiting children. Sometimes they spread a blanket in the grass; sometimes the children took the meal home. The practice was halted because there was no site for serving the meal.
Child hunger may exist in every county across the country, but not every county looks the same. No one-size-fits-all model is going to put a dent in reaching the more than 500,000 at-risk kids who arent being reached across our state this summer.
Congress will have a unique opportunity to give nonprofits more summer program options when it rewrites child nutrition programs next year. Our food banks hope you will join us in making the summer meal gap a top priority for our congressional delegation. We encourage all of our elected officials to visit one of our summer feeding programs to learn about the ways to help our children in need.
We all share a Norman Rockwell-type of image of the average American child eagerly anticipating summer vacation. There is something seriously wrong with that picture when a child actually dreads the end of the school year because he or she wont be able to get enough to eat.
Alan Briggs is executive director of the N.C. Association of Feeding America Food Banks.