Hunger does not take the summer off.

The 30.3 million students that rely on free and reduced-price meals during the school year are at risk of going hungry when summer vacation begins. While these students also qualify for summer meal programs, only about 10% of them participate, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Last year, nearly 2.9 million children participated in a summer lunch program, according to a Food Research and Action Center (FRAC) report released today. The number represents 171,000 fewer children participating in July 2018 versus July 2017. This is the third consecutive year that summer feeding numbers fell, the report states.

“The Summer Nutrition Programs help fill the hunger gap that exists for many families when the school year ends,” Clarissa Hayes, one of the report’s authors, said in an email. “Summer meal sites frequently serve healthy meals alongside educational and enrichment programming, which together help combat summertime food insecurity, weight gain and learning loss for children.”

Creative solutions to summer hunger

Districts are bridging the gap by providing mobile food trucks that bring summer food to low-income neighborhoods, park-style picnics at elementary schools and even bus passes to get students to and from places serving hot, healthy meals.

Another battle, however, is playing out at the national level where laws and funding are decided.

Advocates of summer meals are hopeful that the Summer Meals Act, which is currently being considered by Congress, will help provide funds for these programs. The bill would streamline rules to make it easier for sponsors to donate. It would also lower the participation threshold from 50% density of those who qualify for free and reduced-price lunches to 40%, making summer food services available in more areas.

An additional bill, the Stop Child Summer Hunger Act of 2019, would allow for funds to be distributed to qualifying families so they could purchase food during the summer months in areas where summer food service is lacking. USDA launched a similar program in 2011, but this year is funding it in only two states (Michigan and Wisconsin) and two tribes (the Chickasaw Nation and the Inter Tribal Council of Arizona​), according to the report.

“Summer programs provide an important platform for summer meals, and there simply are not enough affordable summer enrichment programs available for low-income families to participate in,” Hayes said. “Increased investments in summer programs at the federal, state and local levels would ensure that low-income children have access to the summer learning opportunities and the summer meals they need.”

Meals increase, sites decrease

The report also finds that while the number of summer meal program sponsors increased, the number of sites decreased. To ease the strain, many districts get creative when it comes to sites and meal delivery.