'Hunger Doesn't Take a Summer Holiday'

Emily Kahoud
Spare Change News

Imagine the childhood relics of summertime: endless days of playing outdoors, the overwhelming aroma of a neighbor’s hamburgers and hot dogs on charcoal, or licking melty ice cream cones fast enough to stop the dribbles from reaching your hands and next your clothes. Now imagine this being tainted by the gnawing pain of an unfilled stomach. For millions of children, the gleam of this majestic period of freedom from schoolwork is dulled by a new entity — hunger — that impedes on this carefree indulgence important for every child to experience.

“Hunger doesn’t take a summer holiday,” remarks Kathleen King, Senior Policy Associate for Child Health at the Children’s Defense Fund, and the end of the academic year means that nationwide, millions of the children who rely on The National School Lunch Program will no longer be receiving reliable breakfast, lunch, or snacks.

Therefore, the federally funded Summer Food Service Program (SFSP) serves the purpose of ensuring that children and young adults’ nutritional needs continue to be fulfilled during the summer. However, as federal attention has shifted much of its focus on accelerating recovery from the recession, according to the Food Research and Action Center (FRAC), the SFSP has been hit hard.

Last summer, only 1 in 7 of the children who were provided meals during the school year benefited from summer meal programs. More importantly, FRAC’s statistics showed that July 2011 served 112,000 fewer children than July 2008 when it was first clear that the nation’s economy had irrefutably been engulfed by a recession. Thus in a time of greater need for food assistance, fewer kids are actually having access to summer meals. “Children in communities of color are hit hardest,” remarked King, “As they are disproportionately living in families struggling to put food on the table.”

The Summer Food Service Program is a partnership in Massachusetts hunger reduction initiatives between the United States Department of Agriculture, Project Bread, the MA Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, and the Department of Food and Nutrition Services at Boston Public Schools. Operating from June 25th until August 31st, the SFSP functions across 140 sites in 28 communities, providing free breakfast and lunch to eligible children and teens under the age of 18.

This year, Project Bread has awarded more than 30 grants amounting to over $90,000 that will serve local Summer Food Service Programs across Massachusetts. However, numerous logistical constraints must first be overcome. Securing the transport of nutritious, FDA-approved food to the sites marks one difficulty. Proper storage and refrigeration while the summer’s heat threatens to expire the produce, or the most nutrient-rich component, must also be carefully managed. Lastly are the challenges that come with preparing the meals at the sites.

One of the most formidable challenges to the Summer Food Service Program, however, is the establishment of feeding sites that rely on community funding. Feeding sites must be safely accessible to children, within walking distance or public transportation, which is often a problem in urban, suburban and rural areas, King states.

In addition to the logistical constraints, according to Project Bread, the summer food programs are not as well known as the school programs or often lack the structured routine that facilitates school lunch programs. Hosted by community recreational programs including parks, swimming pools, playgrounds, and other summer activity organizations, they may easily be missed by the targeted population they serve. Thus, awareness that these programs exist must be ensured by advertising to the underserved population of children and families who face food insecurity, meaning their household’s economic condition fosters uncertain access to food.

Having food at public facilities where children are more likely to play serves to attract beneficiaries to these sites, however, federal and state budget cuts have severely reduced the availability of programs. Each of these barriers has contributed to increased child hunger during the summer months.

Federal and state budgets may be struggling with the upkeep of an eclectic repertoire of programs targeting at-risk populations, yet it is essential for policymakers to make childhood nutrition a top priority. Adequate nutrition is not only essential to minimizing developmental, learning, and emotional difficulties among children and young adults, but without it, children are much more likely to be sick and cannot grow to be strong and healthy adults. King states, “It is during these crucial formative years of both cognitive and physical development that sets the foundation to a successful path to adulthood.”

Performance in school is severely disrupted by poor nutrition, which compromises attention span and working memory in order to reserve the nutrients that are available to the brain’s most essential survival functions. Poor nutrition in children subjects this less weather-tested population to assaults their developing bodies are not prepared to take on, leading to possible chronic illnesses. Although energy insufficiency is the most formidable challenge to children of low-income households, an overabundance of empty calories rather than nutritional calories is a second danger, threatening obesity, high blood sugar levels, and increased risk for type 2 diabetes.

When considering nutritional deficits, children and young adults make up the most vulnerable population because these inadequacies may yield permanent effects upon a child’s developing body. The brain is the most vulnerable to nutrient insufficiencies. Interestingly, however, this powerhouse organ has also proven to be impressively resistant to long-term or permanent damage as a result of protein-energy malnutrition due in large part to the plasticity of the tens of billions of neurons of which the brain is composed.

Yet not all organ systems tell the same story. The developing skeletal structure is a prime example of one that cannot as easily bounce back after deprivation. Caloric expenditures that exceed intake along with calcium and Vitamin D deficiencies may compromise the integrity of a child’s developing bone structure during critical periods such as the growth spurt. More importantly, research has shown even if proper nutrition is restored, catch-up bone accrual fails to fully compensate, leaving an individual vulnerable to future bone fractures and significantly increasing one’s risk of osteoporosis later in life.

Proper nutrients are essential to maintaining good health for the body as well as the mind. Thus, quality food must be reliable not just when school is in session, but also during the breaks when children need energy to engage in a different kind of learning, that achieved through play.

Recall the faint pangs of hunger described earlier, and suddenly the nostalgia of those long summer days is tainted. Children who are food insecure are robbed of summer’s joy and are unprepared for the school year. When a child has to wonder when their next meal will be, this brings summer learning loss to a whole new level where they will not only digress academically, but will be set back physically. These children may sit down at their freshly shined desks that first day of school already tired and having even less energy to contain those first-day-back jitters.

According to King, publicizing this disparity is a crucial step towards remediation. It is essential that churches, summer schools, and other community organizations understand the disparities that exist and the reality of only 1 in 7 at-risk children being served summer meals. Communities need to continue investing and making donations to food banks. Especially in an election year, King reminds us that “having children waking up every morning and wondering when their next meal will be is something we simply cannot allow in America, the richest nation on earth. It’s time to hold our political leaders to account. ” It’s past time Americans recognize the importance of making that investment, and realize that these investments pay off for children now and for our country in the future. Not only is it “immoral to have children hungry all summer, but it’s immoral to have children hungry at all.”

EMILY KAHOUD is a recent graduate from the Cornell/Division of Nutritional Sciences Program in Health Studies.

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