For many students, the prospect of summer is exciting, but for students in low-income homes the long break often increases the likelihood of food insecurity. For these students and their families, already-tight food budgets grow even more constrained over the summer.
When at school, low-income students across North Carolina are eligible for free or reduced-price meals. With 1 in 4 of North Carolina’s children struggling with food insecurity, this USDA school lunch program addresses a much-needed nutritional gap for many of the state’s youth. For students near the poverty line who qualify, this national program wards off the risk of hunger. While approximately 80 percent of eligible young people receive school meals nationwide, summer means no school and, consequently, less access to healthy and nutritious food.
Officials estimate that in 2014 over 820,000 children in North Carolina were eligible for summer meals programs under federal guidelines. For these students, a lack of regular access to nutritious food can contribute to falling behind in school. Feeding hungry kids in the state should be a priority, but unfortunately these programs are not reaching over 675,000 of North Carolina’s youngest residents.
North Carolina has made tremendous progress in recent years with the Summer Food Service Program, a USDA program administered at the state level by the N.C. Department of Public Instruction. Just five years ago, the state’s participation in the summer meals program was in the single digits with only 8.5 percent of eligible youth participating. Participation was so low in 2010 that the USDA concluded that “the shortage of SFSP sites and low participation means that small increases in the overall participation rate will garner dramatic results.” Federal bureaucrats are not prone to using words like “dramatic.”
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Fortunately, the tide may be turning. Cynthia Ervin, the state’s SFSP coordinator, worked tirelessly to increase the participation rate by 30 percent from 2013 to 2014. Even with these efforts, the participation in the SFSP is far too low to meet the needs of the state’s young people at risk of food insecurity over the summer.
The most straightforward way to raise the SFSP participation rate is to bring more eligible children into the program. No Kid Hungry NC and the state government have done excellent work at raising awareness and conducting outreach, but access and transportation to each food service location remain a substantial challenge.
Another way to increase the SFSP participation is to recruit more food service sponsors and sites. Unfortunately, the extensive requirements and heavy administrative burden of this seasonal program can be daunting for prospective partners. While Congress and the state have initiated programs like the Simplified Summer option, recruitment continues to be a hard sell. Maureen Berner at the UNC Chapel Hill School of Government recently received a two-year fellowship to research these barriers to participation and develop potential strategies to overcome them.
Childhood hunger affects every North Carolinian. This is our next generation, let’s support them and not let them fall behind this summer. Ervin and her partners in and out of government are ramping up efforts for summer 2015. Food-service organizations can participate as vendors. Nonprofit, local government agencies and colleges can sign up to be sponsors or sites for the program. Together, we can take a bite out of food insecurity and help feed hungry kids this summer.
Tommy Tobin is a student at Harvard Law School from South Carolina who recently presented on the SFSP at the N.C. Central University’s School of Law.
Find out more about the summer feeding program at nc.nokidhungry.org/ or call the 866-3HUNGRY hotline.