Summer has started here in Lawrence, KS, which means the beginning of the summer meal program, locally called Fuel Up 4 Summer. The Summer Food Service Program is a federally funded strategy to ensure that children continue to receive nutritious meals when school is not in session. The food provided must meet the same nutritional standards as the food served during the school year.
Every year, a dedicated group of individuals representing different agencies in the community gather together and plan out the best way to ensure all children have access to healthy food over the summer. Despite the group’s best efforts, the summer meal program only reaches a fraction of the targeted students in the community. Lawrence isn’t alone in this trend.
Nationally, 30 million students receive free or reduced-price meals during the regular school year that’s an average of over 200 billion meals a year. When school is out, fewer than 4 million children will receive food from the Summer Food Service Program.This leaves 87% of children on free and reduced lunch in America without steady access to nutritious food during the summer months.
Recently, someone asked me whether they should have their children participate in the Summer Food Service Program. She explained that they didn’t always need the financial assistance of free food for children over the summer. She worried that if her kids participated, they would potentially be taking a meal from a child who needs it. I explained that there is no limit to the amount of meals that kids in the community receive, and all children under the age of 18 are eligible and encouraged to participate. In fact, in Lawrence, KS the economy of scale plays a large role in summer feeding, truly making it so that the more meals served, the better it is for the program. Everyone benefits when all children receive free meals together.
Income doesn’t always reflect someone’s ability to have healthy food. Just because someone comes from a high or medium income household, that doesn’t mean they eat a balanced meal every day. Schools who have started promoting universal free lunch in recent years have seen a drastic improvement in vegetable consumption and a decrease in consumption of sugary drinks and junk foods for all students. Children who face hunger or lack of proper nutrition are at a higher risk for summer learning loss and starting the next year at least a month behind their peers. Switching to a healthier, more balanced meal on a regular basis can influence a child’s diet and preference at home, leading to better eating habits for a lifetime.These drastic improvements pave the way for healthy futures in the community.
The stigma connected to public assistance is still the biggest reason why so many fail to access the Summer Food Program. If you don’t think children are aware of the social implications and stigmas of receiving free services, you are wrong. The discomfort and anxiety of being different from their friends and classmates creates a barrier and resistance to receiving this vital service. By separating the haves from the have-nots, we further divide our community by our economic groupings. Simply eating a meal together can change the social dynamics of a school and community, making summer a worry free time for all children.
When planning out what this summer is going to look like for your children or grandchildren, know that you are welcomed and encouraged to participate in the Summer Meal Program and share information about this vital resource with your friends, family and co-workers. Together we can create a healthy community, one meal at a time.
For information on times and location of the summer meal program in Lawrence, visit http://fuelup4summer.com/