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Could we keep half a million kids from going hungry this summer?

Mar 2, 2016

Credit U.S. Department of Agriculture's photostream / Flickr Creative Commons / http://j.mp/1SPGCl0

No more pencils. No more books. No more free lunch?

Credit Food Resource and Action Center

Millions of low-income kids across the country rely on free and reduced-priced breakfast and lunch during the school year.

So, what happens when school is out for the summer and they lose access to these meals?

The number of students participating in the National School Lunch Program has increased steadily over the past decade. In 2015, over 20 million students nationwide qualified for the program.

According to the Michigan Department of Education, on average about 500,000 low-income kids in the state receive free or reduced-priced meals in school.

But when summer vacation rolls around, only a fraction of those children have access to free food.

About 104,000 – a modest 21 percent – receive meals or snacks at approved summer meal sites in their communities through the federal Summer Food Service Program.

More kids nationwide are eating free summer meals

The June 2015 Summer Nutrition Status Report from the Food Research and Action Center (FRAC) found that the amount of children nationwide served by Summer Nutrition Programs increased between 2013 and 2014:

Summer 2014 yielded good news for the Summer Nutrition Programs and for low-income children. Last summer marked the largest increase in children eating summer meals since July 1993, the third year of growth in the programs. During July 2014, the Summer Nutrition Programs served nearly 3.2 million children, an increase of 215,000 (7.3 percent) from 2013.

FRAC cited factors including more sponsors and participating sites:

The number of SFSP sponsors and sites increased from July 2013 to July 2014. Nationally, 277 sponsors (a 5.3 percent increase) and 3,899 sites (a 9.3 percent increase) were added, primarily due to the extensive outreach conducted by USDA, state agencies, and national, state, and local stakeholders.

Getting summer food in your community

Here in Michigan, the Department of Education hopes to almost double the state's 21% summer participation rate to match the national goal of 40%.

The department is looking for more community partners, sponsors, and potential site locations for its statewide "Meet Up and Eat Up" program. It serves nutritious meals to kids up to age 18 living in low-income areas where 50% or more of the students qualify for free or reduced-priced school meals.

Many summer food sites provide educational enrichment and recreational activities in addition to meals and snacks.

"Many families across Michigan are struggling, and we can't have children going hungry in the summer when programs like this are available," State Superintendent Brian Whiston said in a press release.

Some kids can't take advantage of "Meet Up and Eat Up" because of problems with transportation or a safe route to the sites. So the more locations, the better. The program operates in schools, public housing centers, playgrounds, camps, parks, and faith-based facilities.

"The Summer Food Service Program can fill the summer hunger gap for hundreds of thousands of children if there is an increase in community awareness, local government involvement, sponsors to run the program, and sites to serve meals," Whiston said in the release.

Sponsors of summer feeding sites receive federal reimbursement for both meals they serve and the administrative costs of serving them. New sponsors are trained and assisted by the MDE.

If you are looking for current "Meet Up and Eat Up" sites, you can check out this map.

If you want to help, you can call the MDE at 517-373-3347 by March 15, 2016. For more information, visit the Summer Food Service Program website.