Ensuring kids get healthy summer food
As a former school superintendent, I’ve seen first-hand the difference that access to nutritious meals can make in kids’ success in school and in their health and happiness. Research also tells us that an empty stomach hurts a student’s concentration, creativity and learning ability.
We’ve had success combating student hunger through initiatives such as the National School Lunch Program and the School Breakfast Program, which provide healthy food to more than 375,000 kids in Colorado and millions more across the country.
During the summer, when school is out, the task is more challenging.
One of the ways we try to meet student needs during the summer is through the Federal Summer Food Service Program. The program provides low-income kids with free lunch and snacks at designated sites throughout the state. It gives many of the kids who rely on free or reduced-priced lunch during the school year a regular source of nutritious food throughout the summer months. Last month, we visited with kids at Stedman Elementary School in Denver who are participating in the program. Almost 100 kids were enjoying healthy breakfast pizzas on a whole wheat crust served with fresh pineapple, blueberries, strawberries and cantaloupe. For some of those children it might have been their most nutritious and substantive meal of the day.
However, not all kids who need them have access to meals during the summer. Despite efforts to enroll more kids, participation in the summer meals program in Colorado is only about one-tenth of school lunch participation each day. Currently, the summer meals program requires that kids travel to a designated site and eat their entire meal there. Although this model works well in many urban areas, many kids — especially in rural communities — live far away from their designated site or don’t have transportation or a safe route to it. Under current law, open sites are only permissible in areas where at least 50 percent of kids are eligible for free and reduced lunch, yet 31 percent of low-income kids in Colorado live outside of such eligible areas. This means that thousands of kids could be going hungry during the summer months.
That’s why we’ve introduced The Hunger Free Summer for Kids Act with Republican Sen. John Boozman from Arkansas. Our bill makes summer child nutrition programs more efficient and flexible and gives states more options for addressing child hunger in the summer months.
First, the bill creates the option for eligible families to receive up to $30 per summer month to purchase food items. USDA pilot programs have shown that this can reduce the most severe cases of hunger in children by more than 30 percent. Our bill would also allow states the flexibility to provide summer meals, particularly in rural and other high-need areas, without requiring kids to travel to a summer meals site or to eat the meal at that site. For example, Colorado food banks could drop off meals for kids, or families could make one trip to pick up lunches for the entire week.
At a time when childhood obesity and poverty rates are increasing, this bill couldn’t be more important. Fortunately, many provisions from the Hunger Free Summer for Kids Act passed the Senate Agriculture Committee in January as part of a larger bill to reauthorize child nutrition programs through 2020, and we will continue working to have the bill signed into law.
We should ensure that every child can access a summer food program like the one at Stedman Elementary School. The well-being of our kids is not a partisan issue. By creating more flexibility in the summer meals program, we can increase access to fresh, healthy food and make sure no one is playing on an empty stomach this summer.
Michael Bennet is the senior U.S. senator from Colorado.