By Amanda Litvinov
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Nearly 22 million children received free or reduced-price lunch through the National School Lunch Program last year. Remarkably, only 16% of those students participated in a summer meals program.
Allison Haswell has worked in the Scottsboro City School District in northeastern Alabama for 10 years, most recently as a food service professional at Brownwood Elementary, where 62 percent of students qualify for free and reduced-price lunch.
Haswell sees the need for summer meals, not just in the data but during her interaction with students.
“When the students come back from summer vacation, they’re so excited to go through the line and put everything on their plates. Some of those little ones are so hungry they can’t wait to get at the food,” Haswell told EducationVotes. “If we could get to more of those kids all summer, it would be so beneficial for them to know they will get a hot meal every day.”
That’s why she applied for a part-time position with the district’s brand new summer meal program.
For the month of June, Haswell was part of a crew that prepped and served breakfast and lunch in the cafeteria at Collins Intermediate School. All of the children enrolled in the district summer camp program ate there, and meals were prepared and packed for delivery to the Boys & Girls Club and a local Head Start program. The doors also opened to the public each weekday at 12:30, when any child from the community between the ages of 2 and 18 could come in and eat for free.
“We were really hoping the program would be hugely successful in reaching the general public, but unfortunately, it was not,” said Haswell. “We may have had only 10 kids the entire month come in and eat for free.”
She believes many in the community simply weren’t aware of the summer meals program—which just started this year—and that others faced transportation problems.
“Some parents here can’t afford the gas money to be able to drive their child over for breakfast and lunch each day,” Haswell said. “Funding transportation for families who need it is probably the number one thing that would help the program grow.”
Child hunger is not unique to the region where Haswell lives. One in six American households were food insecure in 2014, which means they don’t have consistent access to ample food. Even some of the richest communities in the nation are also home to families struggling to feed their children.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture, which distributes funds for summer meals through state agencies, has worked over the past few years to expand its summer programs. In 2014, more than 187 million summer meals were provided at over 50,000 sites nationwide.
Pat Lieberman has seen a dramatic rise in the need for summer meals in her 19 years as a school food service professional in Sayreville, New Jersey.
“Just in the high school alone, the increase every year in the number of kids qualifying for meals programs is surprising. When I started here, roughly 11 percent of kids were on free and reduced-price lunch. Now that number is up over 30 percent.”
She’s been known to hand out bagels to hungry students who show up at her office door during the school year. Those are the kids she worries about in June, July and August, because her district doesn’t have a summer meals program.
In addition to providing nutritious meals, summer meals programs offer a safe environment for kids, and the vast majority have educational and play activities to keep students engaged in learning over the summer.
“My dream is that we’ll someday have a school garden and a summer meals program. Then the kids who come in for a meal can help us take care of the garden and learn about the food that’s good for them,” she said.
But for now, it’s just a dream.
School food service professionals like Allison Haswell and Pat Lieberman urge lawmakers to address the issue of summer hunger as they set out to renew federal child nutrition programs, including school lunch and breakfast, by reauthorizing the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act.
“Working in the public school system, I see a lot of our children come through the line obviously so hungry,” says Allison Haswell. “For a lot of them, school meals provide the only nutritious food they will have all day.”
“I just hate to think how many of these kids are going hungry over the summer.”