For most children, summer means time to explore and discover, time for camp, or vacation, or other enriching out-of-classroom experiences. Time to learn through play. For many low-income children, however, summer means hunger. It means the glassed-over eyes and lethargy that accompany unfilled bellies. It means children consuming the empty but filling calories that contribute to this nation’s childhood obesity problem. And it means low-income kids falling further behind their higher-income peers because there are no summer enrichment programs in the areas where they live.
This summer, millions of children who rely on the school breakfast and lunch programs during the school year are living this reality, spending the summer without access to healthy meals and the enrichment activities that traditionally accompany them.
The Summer Food Service Program and the National School Lunch Program, the two federal programs that feed children during the summer months, are incredibly successful where available. At sites where children’s meals are reimbursed by the federal government, kids practice their reading after receiving a nutritious breakfast; constructive play is followed by a healthy lunch.
However, according to a new report from the Food Research and Action Center, in 2008 only one in six children who received free or reduced lunch during the 2007-2008 school year had access to a meal through the federal summer nutrition programs. That’s 13.8 million kids for whom summer means hunger and falling further behind.
It does not have to be this way. In October 2008, then-candidate Barack Obama pledged that, if elected, he would aim to end child hunger in America by 2015. In February 2009, President Obama cited that promise in his budget proposal to Congress, requesting $1 billion per year in new funding for child nutrition efforts. Such funds could be used to expand access to free and reduced school breakfast and lunch programs, as well as for summer and after-school feeding opportunities.
Yet, in the budget passed by Congress this past May, no new money was guaranteed for child nutrition programs. In the summer of 2009, as millions of children are living in neighborhoods without access to summer feeding, we have not yet found the funding to make improvements to these programs.
Ending child hunger by 2015 is an achievable goal. As a first step, we should muster the political will to ensure that kids across the country do not spend next summer with empty bellies and idle minds. This year, as Congress reviews the legislation that sets the rules and funding for the child nutrition programs, it is our obligation to ensure that this legislation represents a down payment on President Obama’s urgent goal of ending child hunger by 2015.
Melissa Boteach is the senior policy associate and poverty campaign coordinator at the Jewish Council for Public Affairs. Hadar Susskind is vice president and Washington director for the Jewish Council for Public Affairs.