Summer may feel far off, but for the nearly 30 million children receiving school lunches each day, summer can be a daunting prospect if meals aren’t guaranteed. The current summer option only reaches 1 in 7 children, and states have until April 1 to decide if they’ll choose to adopt additional supports that could reach more students in need.
The omnibus bill passed at the end of 2022 provides two new ways to prevent students from going hungry during the summer when school is out: school district–provided grab-and-go meal options in lieu of onsite group meals; and a permanent state option to provide a debit-type card with grocery benefits to families whose children are eligible for free and reduced-price school meals. The US Department of Agriculture (USDA) has also piloted a home-delivery model called Meals-to-You that could offer yet another model in the future.
But eligibility for and availability of these federal programs rely on states’ ability and willingness to participate. And summer hunger isn’t a one-size-fits-all issue.
Within state contexts, needs differ widely between rural and urban communities because rural areas often face additional barriers, such as transportation to school meal sites and ability to pick up grab-and-go meals. When deciding what options best fit students during the summer, states should consider their own states’ context and families’ specific needs.
What new meal options do states have?
The USDA now authorizes a noncongregate meals option, which states can begin as early as summer 2023, for students in rural areas where congregate meal services are unavailable. In the typical congregate model, students must eat the meals where the meals are served, but the noncongregate option allows for a “grab-and-go” model. Students must either live in an area with “poor economic conditions” or be eligible for free or reduced-price meals and can receive up to 10 days’ worth of meals at one time.
Summer Electronic Benefits Transfer (EBT), which states can begin implementing in summer 2024, will give families whose children are eligible for free or reduced-price school meals $40 a month per child (up to $120 per household) in grocery benefits to use during the summer. This program is similar to another program called Pandemic-EBT, though Pandemic EBT can’t be offered in tandem with Summer EBT and has a significantly higher administrative burden for states.
Meals-to-You, which was piloted from 2019 to 2021 and extended into 2022, could be an option in the future. The program ships weekly boxes of shelf-stable meals to eligible rural students in the summer months when school food isn’t available. Three states piloted it, and it was briefly scaled in 2020. But it’s not yet permanent or widely available.
How should states decide what meal options best fit their districts?
Three considerations can help shape states’ summer meal offerings:
- Availability and accessibility of congregate meal sites
In rural areas, it can be difficult for students to find transportation to congregate feeding sites during the summer, particularly twice a day for both breakfast and lunch, because only a few feeding sites across the country offer students transportation. Noncongregate sites could provide several meals at once and offer pick-up from the school or could deliver to families via bus routes.
But the proposed noncongregate option is only available in rural areas where congregate options aren’t already available; this means rural districts with students in areas with congregate sites who are unable to participate because of transportation barriers will still likely miss out on the new noncongregate option. In these instances, states might consider their districts operate the noncongregate option in place of the congregate option.
An important consideration for both options is whether organizations outside of schools participate. If the site is a school, school staff need to be present and working during the summer. Additionally, not all summer meal sites are open for the entire summer—95 percent of sites are open in July, compared with only 64 percent in August.
- The convenience and reliability of grocery store access
For areas with good access, EBT programs give families the ability to select foods that work best for them, while congregate and noncongregate options only provide premade meals specifically for individual eligible children.
However, EBT’s effectiveness may be limited in rural areas with limited access to supermarkets and grocery stores. Underresourced rural areas may have few affordable healthy food outlets nearby; dollar stores with limited food options have been the main type of retail food growth in many rural communities. Rural families may need to travel farther to redeem EBT benefits, which may erode the overall value of the benefit to households, particularly in high-cost areas. For example, in highly rural areas, such as outlying villages in western Alaska, families need to travel by boat to access well-stocked grocery stores and prices are prohibitively high.
- Delivery infrastructure
A district where children live far from congregate feeding sites and that lacks access to grocery stores might consider a home-delivery option in the future, although it’s only been available in small pilots. Should home delivery expand, another consideration for school districts will be the adequacy of the delivery infrastructure, which is largely influenced by the rurality of the area (such as long distances between delivery points).
Ultimately, families with reliable and easy access to grocery stores would benefit most from Summer EBT, congregate meal options would work well in school districts where students can easily access a local site, and noncongregate meal options, like periodic pickups, are helpful in rural areas where students live far from any potential feeding site. Meanwhile, home-delivery options like Meals-to-You, if made permanent, would work best in tandem with congregate and noncongregate options in rural areas, where families may still face substantial barriers picking up meal items.
Though these two new options offer new opportunities to combat student summer food insecurity, state policymakers should weigh how their districts’ individual contexts shape food access and tailor their selections to best meet their families’ needs.