The voices of Urban Institute's researchers and staff
June 2, 2016

Food insecurity in the summer: Thinking outside the lunch box

June 2, 2016

For one group of teen girls in Portland, Oregon, the talk about summer was not of camps, family vacations, and carefree days. It was about whether they and others they knew would have enough to eat without school meals.

“It's kind of sad because there's some people that basically live on the school lunches,” one Portland teenager told the Urban Institute in a recent focus group.

In 2015, 22 million school-age children participated in the free or reduced price National School Lunch Program. But the number of children who continue to access food assistance in the summer is dramatically lower. Only about 2.6 million children participate in the federally funded Summer Food Service Program, a little more than 1 in 10 who receive free and reduced price school meals.

Households with children have higher rates of food insecurity during the summer months because more people are at home and fewer resources are available without school lunches. Some research also suggests that child obesity rates increase in the summer; in some households, families may rely on cheaper, less healthy foods to stretch their budgets. 

The Summer Food Service Program has tried to adopt the school lunch model by providing meals in group settings for kids at parks, community centers, and schools, sometimes in connection with other programming. But this strategy has encountered significant barriers: it can be tough to find enough program sponsors and sites during summer months; kids may not have transportation to a site, especially in suburban and rural areas; families with limited resources may be reluctant to invest time and money getting to a site without child care or other programming available for kids; parents or caregivers aren’t eligible for the meals; and teens often think the program is only for elementary school kids or fear the embarrassment of being seen getting a free meal. 

In spite of vigorous efforts by the US Department of Agriculture and community partners to expand access to the Summer Food Service Program, we still haven’t made much progress in solving the challenge of summer food insecurity.

Changing the approach to fit families

Some encouraging efforts are under way to think outside of the traditional school lunch approach by adapting the model to fit families, rather than asking families to try to fit the model.

Particularly promising are the results of USDA’s Summer Electronic Benefit Transfer for Children demonstration. The program delivers monthly food assistance benefits during the summer via electronic cards for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, formerly known as Food Stamps) and the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children. Evaluations of this approach demonstrated reductions in food insecurity.

This willingness to break from the traditional model is a step forward in recognizing that summer food insecurity is a household phenomenon and so the most responsive focus of interventions is the family. The Obama administration has proposed scaling this approach over time in its  fiscal year 2017 budget, but given congressional antipathy to other federal nutrition programs like SNAP, and a reluctance to increase spending, the prospects for wider implementation are uncertain at best.

In the meantime, nonprofits and local communities are experimenting with innovations designed to move beyond the limitations of the Summer Food Service Program. Feeding America, the national food bank network, has launched a three-year pilot program to create community planning hubs. The program, funded by ConAgra Foods Foundation, will bring together stakeholders who work with kids, but who often operate separately in the summer.

One of these grantees, Freestore Foodbank, working with partners in Cincinnati and surrounding counties in Ohio and Kentucky, will test new models hatched during a community ideation session. A pilot will hire teens to lead a culinary camp for younger kids, providing sorely needed summer jobs for low-income youth, programming for younger kids that includes an opportunity to learn about healthy eating and cooking skills, and free food for kids and teens.

Another pilot will test a weekly box delivery of shelf-stable meals to eligible families in rural communities, making it easier for these families to get food and eat together at home. Other organizations, such as the Second Harvest Food Bank of Santa Clara and San Mateo Counties (serving the Silicon Valley area) are partnering to use nongovernmental funds to offer meals to family members and caregivers who accompany kids to meal sites, such as the Lunch at the Library program.

Thinking outside the box requires a deep understanding of the diverse needs of vulnerable families with children and creating flexible responses to those needs, with a commitment to scale. That’s the only way to get a meaningful increase in the number of kids who will benefit from summer food assistance.

In this photo taken July 15, 2013, a child looks at the carton of milk she's being handed during a lunch program in Federal Way, Wash. Four days a week this summer, the lime green school bus loaded with games, books and computers rumbles through low-income neighborhoods south of Seattle. Its aim isn't just to entertain kids, but to feed them. (AP Photo/Elaine Thompson)

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