Summer Meal Partners: What Legislators Can Do to Help Feed Hungry Kids


Summer Meal Partners: Legislative Options to Help Feed Hungry Kids

By Chesterfield Polkey and Tadeo Melean

July 17, 2019


Around 22 million children received free or reduced-price school meals during the 2017-2018 school year. However, when school is out for summer, only 1 in 8 kids participate in the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) Summer Food Service Program (SFSP), with the number peaking at 2.7 million in July 2018. SFSP supplies free meals during the summer months to low-income children aged 18 and younger when they are out of school during the summer months gap. Now in 2019, the USDA is in its seventh year of providing technical assistance to states and local partners nationwide to expand access to summer meals.

USDA’s Food and Nutrition Service agency administers SFSP at the federal level while various states administer the program locally such as a state department of health and human services, education, or agriculture. Congress appropriated $520 million for SFSP for Fiscal Year (FY) 2019. The appropriation is a decrease of over $44 million in federal spending from FY 2018 and a decrease of nearly $108 million from FY 2017.

Sponsors and Sites

State agencies administer SFSP through sponsors and sites. Sponsors are organizations responsible, financially and administratively, for running the programs. Sites are the physical location, where meals are served. Sponsors may operate, upon state approval, up to 200 sites. Agencies determine sponsorship through an application process that varies by state and state agency contacts. Sponsors can include: schools, local governments such as parks and recreation departments, nonprofits such as the Boys and Girls Club and Feeding America food banks, colleges, and libraries. Sponsors receive payments based on the number of meals served multiplied by the appropriate combined administrative and operating rates for reimbursement.

Program Challenges

Transportation: Because the program requires children and youth to consume meals onsite (unless permitted otherwise by the state agency), those with limited transportation, especially in rural areas, are at a disadvantage to participate in SFSP. In lower Sussex County, Delaware, the Seaford School District bridged this gap by using four food vans and trucks to deliver meals to children.

Lack of Sponsors/Sites: SFSP requires states to work with the community. Without sponsors to run the program and sites to host the meals, children will not have access to food during the summer months.

Awareness: A 2013 national survey by Share Our Strength found that only 40% of low-income families report being aware of locations for free summer meals and only 17% participated. Community outreach could lead to increased participation in SFSP.

Federal Legislation Introduced in 2019

The Summer Meals Act (S. 1908 and H.R. 2818), sponsored by Senators Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) and Murkowski (R-Ark.) as well as Representatives Young (Ark.) and Larsen (Wash.), would amend the National School Lunch Act to increase the number of low-income children being served by:

  • Lowering area eligibility test from 50 % to 40%,
  • Enabling local agencies to provide year-round meal service,
  • Providing grant funding to support children in underserved areas, and
  • Reimburse meal-service institutions in disaster-affected areas.

The Stop Child Summer Hunger Act (S. 1941 and H.R. 3378), would amend the National School Lunch Act to provide extra Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits to families with children. This legislation is sponsored by Senator Murray (D-Wash.) and Representative Davis (D-Calif.).

The No Shame at School Act (S. 1907  and H.R. 3366), sponsored by Senator Smith (D-M.N.) and Representative Omar (D-M.N.), would amend the National School Lunch Act to ban school lunch shaming and authorize the federal government to reimburse the costs of unpaid meal fees.

The Hunger-Free Summer for Kids Act (S. 1918), sponsored by Senators Boozman (R-Ark.) and Leahy (D-Vt.), would allow for meals to be consumed off-site through mobile feeding programs and backpack meal program. Additionally, the legislation would authorize the Electronic Benefit Transfer (EBT) program to provide eligible families $30 per summer month per child in additional SNAP benefits.

State Legislative Action

Maryland’s Summer SNAP for Children Act (HB 338) addresses the summer meals gap as well as the loss of school meals during winter breaks. Enacted in 2019, this law provides an additional $30 per child per month in SNAP benefits for the months of June, July, and August, and $10 per child for the month of December. Families receive the benefits on their EBT card. The law provides $200,000 annually to fund the supplemental benefits.

New Jersey enacted SB 1897  in 2018, which expands the Summer Food Service Program to all school districts where 50% or more students are eligible for free or reduced priced meals. The law also allows the Department of Agriculture to grant a waiver to a school district if a different sponsor operates an SFSP site in the same community.

Ohio’s HB 49, enacted in 2017, requires school districts to either sponsor SFSP or permit an approved SFSP sponsor to use school facilities in communities where at least one-half of the students are eligible for free lunches. The Ohio Department of Education lists the approved summer food service program sponsors that may use school facilities.

Community Partnerships

Arkansas Children’s Hospital has offered free meals to children through SFSP in Little Rock, Arkansas since 2013. Volunteers prepare sack lunches at one of the hospital’s food preparation facilities. Children can then eat these meals in waiting rooms, the playground, or other onsite locations. In partnership with the Arkansas No Kid Hungry Campaign, the Arkansas Department of Human Services, and USDA, the hospital served over 7000 meals in 2018.

The Lunch at the Library Summer Food Program in Virginia utilizes public libraries as spaces to offer summer meals and educational programming. In collaboration with the Virginia Department of Health and the Virginia No Kid Hungry Campaign, the summer meals program has expanded to 10 public libraries across the state of Virginia.

The California-based food bank Food for People provides free meals to children in the rural and mountainous county of Humboldt. Food for People partnered with both the private sector and public sector to provide meals in an area where the farthest two sites are separated by 120 miles. Staff and volunteers drive over 500 miles per day to deliver meals to 21 SFSP sites.  

NCSL Contacts

Immigration Program

Haley Nicholson

Policy Director, Health

NCSL – Washington, D.C.


Additional Resources

NCSL Resources

Chesterfield Polkey is the 2019 Bill Emerson National Hunger Fellow with the NCSL Hunger Partnership and Tadeo Melean was the 2014 Bill Emerson National Hunger Fellow.