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Summer Fare: Pandemic Lessons on How to Reach Hungry Kids

By Xavier Roberts  |  July 8, 2021

Summer means fewer meals for the millions of children who rely on the breakfast and lunch they eat at school. According to the anti-hunger organization No Kid Hungry, the national summer meals program reaches only 16% of children who need nutritional assistance when school is out. There are currently four federal legislative initiatives looking to address summertime child hunger, and only one has the support of Republican Senate Leader Mitch McConnell: The Hunger-Free Summer for Kids Act of 2021.

This bill is a bipartisan reboot of legislation that would create two additional options for states to use in feeding children over the summer. It would authorize the Summer Electronic Benefit Transfer (Summer EBT) program, providing eligible families $30 per summer month per child to buy certain foods from retailers approved through the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program. Previously piloted Summer EBT programs reduced immediate food hardship among low-income children by about 30%. The legislation would also provide flexibility for meals to be picked up and eaten outside of school through initiatives such as mobile feeding and backpack meal programs. Since the early 2000s, backpack feeding programs have become a growing feature of the hunger relief landscape.

Uneven History

The federal government’s history of providing summer meals to children is uneven. Starting in 1968, with the creation of the Special Food Service Program for Children, children were provided with summertime meals and child care. The next year, 99,000 children were being fed at 1,200 locations. By 1975, when the Summer Food Service Program (SFSP) was authorized, 1.75 million children were fed summer meals at 12,000 locations. In 1977, SFSP participation peaked with 2.8 million children being fed at 23,700 sites. However, there were concerns around misuse and inefficiency within SFSP. In the late 1970s and early ’80s, federal legislation reduced the number of eligible communities through various methods, including increasing the area eligibility requirements to 50% of children eligible for free- and reduced-priced meals, instead of one-third (a policy that remains in effect).

In the late 1980s and early ’90s, SFSP was reinvigorated through legislation such as the Healthy Meals for Healthy Americans Act, only to be restructured by the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act of 1996. Since the early 2000s, SFSP has had consistent growth in participation. The Child Nutrition and WIC Reauthorization Act of 2004 made program participation simpler and more accessible. Over the past several years, $85 million was appropriated for pilot projects to better feed low-income children in urban and rural areas during the summer months, with limitations removed on the number of sites that private nonprofits could operate via SFSP. As of 2019, 2.7 million children were fed at 47,463 sites.

While participation in SFSP has steadily risen, the program is not even close to reaching the number of children who are eligible. In 2019, the National School Lunch Program provided free- or reduced-price lunches to 29.4 million children, leaving a gap of more than 26 million children who were eligible for SFSP but were not fed.

There are several proposed solutions to closing this gap. Chief among them are the provisions outlined in the proposed Hunger-Free Summer for Kids Act. The COVID-19 pandemic forced communities to determine how to feed children in ways that did not require them to gather in one place. Pandemic EBT, which mirrors Summer EBT, became a widely used and effective tool. Mobile feeding and backpack programs expanded, and decentralized meal sites became necessary and normalized. This legislation would apply lessons learned during the pandemic, and advance the technological and logistical improvements developed during the crisis, to help ensure low-income children have access to healthy foods year-round.

Xavier Roberts is a fellow in NCSL’s State-Federal Program.

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