When the final bells ring and students pour out of schools for the summer, some set their sights on beach trips, lazy days playing in backyard sprinklers and summer camps with friends. But for hundreds of thousands of Georgia schoolchildren, figuring out where their next meal will come from is top of mind. Nearly 879,000 Georgia school children participate in the National School Lunch Program during the school year. But when classes end and summer begins, these students may face hunger and food insecurity without the reliable presence of school-based breakfasts, lunches and snacks provided during the day.
A new Food Research & Action Center report released this month sheds light on the food access barriers Georgia children face. Georgia’s summer nutrition program served 151,142 children in 2015, reaching only 17.2 percent of students who participate in the National School Lunch Program during the school year. While that number is low, it is important to note that the number of children getting fed through Georgia’s summer program is growing. A 14 percent increase in the number of Georgia students served from July 2014 to July 2015 is an encouraging trend. This promising growth is expected to continue in 2016, as nearly all of the 2015 summer feeding sites and sponsors are helping feed children again this summer.
Innovative program and delivery methods are improving the quality and reach of Georgia’s summer feeding programs. The Georgia Food Bank Association’s “Feeding for a Promising Future – No Kid Hungry” campaign offered capital grants for the past three years to many summer meal sponsors to expand cooler space and provide delivery vans. The effort aims to permanently expand the capacity of summer feeding sites and sponsors to serve more kids. Georgia’s Department of Early Care and Learning and the School Nutrition Department of the Georgia Department of Education are playing a growing role to market and promote summer feeding programs to in addition to administering these programs. New strategic partners such as the Georgia Library Association now help identify sites to serve meals, connecting the dots between places where kids congregate during the summer and site sponsors that are able to deliver meals. [Click here for a map of summer feeding sites throughout Georgia.]
Still, the unmet need is great. Georgia’s child poverty rate remains one of the highest in the nation at 26.3 percent and food insecurity is real and widespread in urban and rural communities across the state. Summer Nutrition Programs provide federal money to states to help fill the hunger gap during the summer. Unfortunately, Georgia ranks among states that miss out on the most federal funding. According to the new report, Georgia left $15.8 million on the table in 2015 alone due to a shortage of sponsors and sites to administer the program. Flexibility to administer the meals in more innovative ways, as well as ongoing and aggressive community outreach to secure community-based summer feeding sites are critical for Georgia to best leverage the dollars available to to feed children during the summer.
Congress can protect and improve summer feeding programs as they consider Child Nutrition Reauthorization. Opportunities abound to innovate and improve its effectiveness and ultimately ensure no child goes hungry. A summer stored value card for families with children that qualify for free and reduced lunch would provide a more convenient way to purchase food during the summer months. Extending the ability and capacity of summer feeding sites to operate year-round can streamline the paperwork involved in administering the program. Flexible administration of the program to make grab-and-go and meal delivery options more available to all summer feeding program sponsors can go a long way in increasing access. And everyone can encourage community-based sites across the state to participate in the program, allowing Georgia to access more federal money to feed more children.
The hunger pangs Georgia students feel during the summer are all too real. Greater and smarter investments in their wellbeing are needed to help ensure no Georgia child goes hungry.