While politicians recklessly propose cuts to destroy many of the basic living standards that help working and middle class families get ahead when times are tough or wages aren’t enough, anxiety rises for the already struggling families questioning their safety across the country. Now that summer is here and school is out, for millions of families, the stress multiplies. Summertime means hunger time for the over 21 million children in the U.S. who rely on free and reduced priced school meals during the rest of the year. Every child needs healthy, daily meals to continue learning and growing over the summer. That’s why WhyHunger is once again kicking off our Summer Meals Rock for Kids campaign!

In this critical time when basic necessities, like healthy food for families and children, are on the government’s chopping block, we must capitalize on our existing resources to take a stand and protect our children’s access to healthy food. The USDA’s Summer Food Service Program provides free, nutritious meals to kids at local centers across the U.S., but only 15% of eligible children participate, often due to a lack of awareness and information on where to find summer meals sites. Therefore, WhyHunger’s Summer Meals Rock for Kids campaign distributes information to families across the country to connect them with local resources and prevent hunger. With the largest database of emergency food providers and summer food sites in the country, we can fight the summer spike in childhood hunger and help more kids get the healthy food they need. We need your help to spread the word about these programs to ensure that all children have access to safe, healthy meals when school lets out.

Now more than ever, we must take action to make sure our children have the food they need this summer to grow, learn and thrive.

To find your closest Summer Food Service Program summer meals site:

• Call the WhyHunger Hotline at 1-800-5HUNGRY (1-800-548-6479) for service in both Spanish and English. The hotline is open Monday through Friday, 9:00am to 6:00pm EDT]
• Text “summer” and your zip code to 1-800-548-6479 to get a location within minutes
• Visit whyhunger.org/summermealsearch to find a site online.

And here’s how you can help:

Donate to support WhyHunger's Hotline and online database.
• Spread the word to your network and community by downloading and distributing flyers in English and Spanish at your local community centers, schools and libraries
Add graphics to your blog, website or social media accounts with #SummerMealsRock

You can find these materials and more at: whyhunger.org/summermeals. Thank you for making a difference this summer!

When Patrice Chamberlain met with local police chiefs to explain why they should care about summer meals, she steadied herself for a “big sell.” To her surprise, their immediate response was, “How can we help?” It’s one of the many unlikely partnerships that Chamberlain initiated to help more kids get access to nutritious food in California.

“It starts with having those basic needs met. Police appreciate the opportunity to interact positively in communities. To connect families to resources. To build trust in communities where those relationships have historically been bad,” she explains. “They deal in poverty.” Poverty has consequences for physical and mental health, educational attainment, and behavior, including interactions with police.

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State Assembly Member Tim Grayson gives a high five to a child at the Mt. Diablo USDA summer event.

About 60% of California's kids qualify for free and reduced price lunch during the school year—more than 3.5 million kids. Most poor kids are in working families, with higher concentrations of poverty among Latino, African American, and indigenous students. It’s the most populous state, with high poverty in the agricultural-rich Central Valley and between Los Angeles and San Diego counties.

Chamberlain directs the California Summer Meal Coalition, a program of the Institute for Local Government. It's a statewide group of agencies brought together to understand why meal programs are underutilized. Summer meal programs are intended to fill the nutrition gap when school is out. But the Coalition finds that accessing school breakfast, lunch, and summer meals are all interconnected.

For advocates, the reasons why kids don’t get summer meals are not surprising. They include a lack of familiarity with the summer meals program, transportation issues in rural areas, hurdles for nutrition directors, safety concerns, language or communication barriers, and program cuts. But the Coalition wanted to go deeper, to understand the connected conditions for poor families in a more holistic context so they could begin to solve them. Funding support from Hunger Is focuses on developing relationships between school districts and government leaders to explore ways to increase meal participation.

Teachers and school staff are intimately aware that kids have “real stuff going on” at home. What happens outside of school hours impacts children’s access to healthy food—during the school year or summer. It could be a late or no-show bus. Or there’s an absent parent or a parent with a disability who relies on other people or an accessible bus to accompany a child to school. “They’re told their fate is set. They’re not getting that food, they are hungry kids,” Chamberlain says. “The research is all there. It affects academic success.” Summer learning loss, or the summer setback, affects both learning and wellness for low-income kids.

The Great Recession and huge cuts to summer learning programs brought a steep decline in sites willing to host the summer meals program. “City leaders maybe thought school districts had it covered. There wasn’t intentional communication between different leaders,” she continues. And that made kids more vulnerable.

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Venus Johnson, Public Safety Director for the City of Oakland, reading to kids at San Pablo Library.

Many DA offices, meanwhile, have juvenile divisions that prosecute juvenile crimes, including truancy. The California State Attorney General’s office released its first report on truancy and chronic absenteeism in 2013. Low-income kids and kids of color were disproportionately affected. Truancy led to school setbacks, loss of earnings, and other lifelong impacts. Poverty is a risk factor in delinquency. Socioeconomic status is a factor in criminal prosecution, too. The consequences are higher for poor youth than affluent ones.

Chamberlain, who holds a Master’s in Public Health, saw parallels with truancy and students who were going hungry. She invited the Attorney General leadership team to be guest readers during a summer lunch service. School supplies were distributed. Law enforcement spoke about the importance of getting to school on time each day to start the day off right and for academic success. “We had perfectly aligned goals,” Chamberlain recalls. “If kids are absent or truant, they can’t access school breakfast. If there’s an issue outside of school, if they can’t get to school, they can’t access it.” And there are a million different obstacles in their path.

Law enforcement officers witness the impacts of hunger on kids and teens. It could present in survival strategies like petty thefts, acting out behavior, or selling drugs. Chamberlain recounted a police officer responding to a domestic dispute because one child ate “more than his share.” Some teens trade sex for food and efforts to combat human trafficking are increasing. Cops who see the consequences of poverty and make that connection are willing to partner on preventative work.

“I do a lot of translation,” Chamberlain says. “I do a lot of listening. I try to find what it is that we have in common [with potential stakeholders], creating a shared language that takes into account what they care about.” She’s a native Californian who peppers her speech with words like “awesome” and “incredible.” Her enthusiasm for summer meal programs is infectious. She credits her kids, ages 9 and 12, with deepening her understanding of the importance of healthy food for kids.

The Coalition tried tweaks to increase awareness and leverage new partnerships to help more kids get nutritious food in the summer. Partners tried summer kickoff events or back to school events to bring families together, have fun, and address needs. At Sun Terrace Elementary School, a community barbecue connected families to services and resources, the event featured speakers, live entertainment, library books, and taste tests of local stone fruits.

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Fire department at the Mt. Diablo USD summer event.

Elected officials have few opportunities to engage working families or to meet kids. Summer meal events provide meaningful connections and a low key way to connect with whole families. The Mayor of San Pablo handed out school supplies at one event. He shook hands or patted each student on the back and wished them a great school year. Chamberlain explains: “These kids don’t interact with elected officials. When someone in a powerful position encourages you to do your best, says you matter, that’s incredibly powerful.”

Creativity and simple changes can have an impact. By adjusting the serving time of summer breakfast—making it more of a brunch—schools saw a big increase in participation, including among teens. It was an unintended outcome, but teenagers wake up later in the day and that was their breakfast time. Another school shifted a produce drop (provided through a relationship with a local food bank) to the morning to increase summer breakfast participation.

“Hunger can sometimes be a charged thing,” Chamberlain says. She believes bringing together different government agencies, including school districts, works effectively and efficiently to create healthy communities. Meal programs—like breakfast and summer meals—help offset costs so that working families can set themselves up for stability. Chamberlain says regardless of political leanings, there’s generally a “consensus to take care of our kids.”

Hunger Is, a joint charitable program of the Albertsons Companies Foundation and the Entertainment Industry Foundation (EIF), builds awareness and raises funds to end childhood hunger. The Institute for Local Government received a grant to fund efforts in California. This is the first in a WhyHunger series of profiles of grant recipients and their impact.

It’s officially summer and that means a lot of different things for people. Unfortunately for the millions of children that rely on schools to get their breakfast and lunch meals, it means the time that they are the hungriest. But, we can all do something about it. Each year, WhyHunger teams up with the USDA and organizations across the country to help fill the gap during the summer. During the school year, more than 21 million children rely on free and reduced priced meals provided by the National School Lunch and School Breakfast Programs, but only 18% participate in the USDA's Summer Food Service Program (SFSP). SFSP’s provides free, nutritious meals for kids at local organizations such as schools, recreation centers, playgrounds, parks, churches, summer camps and more all over the country – all summer long. However, these locations tend to change year to year – that’s where you and WhyHunger come in!

WhyHunger’s Summer Meals Rock for Kids campaign creates awareness about the summer meals program, and activates celebrity auctions and artist ambassadors that raise funds to support the national WhyHunger Hotline and our comprehensive database that is updated regularly and now includes over 38,000 summer meal locations to connect families in need to free, healthy food closest to them when they need it most.

To find your closest Summer Food Service Program summer meals site:

  • Call the WhyHunger Hotline at 1-800-5HUNGRY (1-800-548-6479) for service in both Spanish and English. The hotline is open Monday through Friday, from 9:00am EDT to 6:00pm EDT]
  • Text “summer” and your zip code to 1-800-548-6479 to get a location within minutes
  • Visit whyhunger.org/summermealsearch to find a site online.

And here’s how you can help:

  • Donate to support WhyHunger's Hotline and online database. 
  • Spread the word to your network and community by downloading and distributing flyers in English and Spanish at your local community centers, schools and libraries
  • Add graphics to your blog, website or social media accounts

You can find these materials and more at: whyhunger.org/summermeals. Thank you for making a difference this summer!

This post first appeared in The Huffington Post.

One in five children in America lives in poverty. Summer is the time when more children are hungry than at any other time of the year because they are not receiving free school meals during the week.

That means that their families have to provide for some 150 meals during the summer just for one child. For a family with two or more children earning $15,000 or less, or even earning twice as much, the cost is a budget breaker.

Fortunately, there are government-supported solutions that, with proper support and advocacy, can help all children have a hunger-free summer.

Since 1968 the USDA Food and Nutrition Services has run the Summer Food Service Program which has grown in the past few years to serve more than two and a half million children June - August at almost 50,000 sites all across the country. WhyHunger has supported the work of the USDA for several years to identify where the programs exist and then make that information available through our WhyHunger Hotline at 1-800-548-6479. Now through our brand new texting service, there’s an easier way to find food for children in your area by texting SUMMER plus your zip code to 1-800-548-6479 or searching our database at whyhunger.org/summermeals. Thousands of local organizations are doing heroic work to make sure children eat during the summer but despite all that work the program still only reaches about 15 percent of the eligible children.

A few years ago, WhyHunger came up with a different solution to summer hunger. We suggested to USDA that they add money to an eligible family’s SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program) EBT card during the summer months. USDA has been running a pilot program over the past four years targeting families in several states whose children are eligible but are not receiving summer meals. The results of the pilot showed a reduction in childhood hunger during the summer by one third. The children were also consuming less sugary drinks and eating 12 percent more fruits and vegetables and 30 percent more grains. Many studies have shown that good nutrition aids cognition. There has always been a drop off in cognition during the summer for poor children because of hunger.

Continue reading the full article on The Huffington Post.

$26.9 million in grant funds will be distributed among eight grantees to continue administering pilots of the Summer Electronic Benefits Transfer for Children (Summer EBT) programs, providing summertime nutrition assistance to children who receive free and reduced price meals during the school year. These grants will extend benefits to new rural areas, Tribal Nations, and areas of extreme need including Flint, Michigan. Summer EBT provides a monthly benefit on a debit-type card that can be used throughout the summer for food purchases at authorized stores. Summer EBT is a complement to traditional summer meals programs, which offer no cost summer meals at approved sites, and is especially valuable in areas with limited or no access to traditional summer meals programs.The Obama administration also shared its plan to include a provision in the president's 2017 budget, which would allocate $12 billion over 10 years to the Summer EBT program.  

Summer EBT, which is currently operating as demonstration project, was first funded by Congress in 2010. Rigorous evaluations of these pilots found that Summer EBT can significantly reduce very low food security among children, the most severe form of food insecurity, by one-third. Studies also showed that these additional resources enabled families to eat more healthfully, eating significantly more fruits and vegetables and whole grains – key building blocks to better health. Based on these proven successes, the President's proposed plan would allow Summer EBT to reach nearly 20 million children once fully implemented.

Bill Ayres, Co-founder and Ambassador of WhyHunger, supports the program: "Some years ago as Executive Director of WhyHunger, I met with senators and USDA officials about this very idea - that is, to run a pilot program to feed hungry children during the summer when they do not receive school lunch and breakfast.  It was really a simple idea.  Additional funds are added to the family's SNAP Card each month when the children are not in school.  Though it's many years since that first meeting when the idea was proposed, I'm so pleased to see that there are now bills in Congress to grow the program nationally and President Obama has put it in the budget for a major increase. WhyHunger supports the growth of this program and encourages people and organizations to promote much needed food for our country's poorest children."
 
This year's grantees include Cherokee Nation, Chickasaw Nation, Connecticut, Delaware, Michigan, Missouri, Nevada, and Oregon. The aim is to serve over 250,000 children total, nearly 90 percent more, or over 120,000 additional children, than in 2015. Read the rest of the press release here.

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