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Summer Food Program Combats Hunger And Learning Loss

Kristin Malavenda/WBAA News

Nearly half of all public school students in the United States receive a free or reduced price lunch.

That’s according to the latest Kids Count survey from the Annie E. Casey Foundation.

But during the summer, kids don’t have access to those meals.

The USDA and the Department of Education try to bridge that gap with the Summer Food Service Program, which distributes funding to partners throughout the country to provide lunch to low-income children.

That includes more than 26,000 meals that will be served throughout Tippecanoe and five surrounding counties this summer.

It’s 1 o’clock on a Thursday afternoon, and roughly 50 kids have gathered under a large tent at the Claystone at the Crossing apartment complex in Lafayette.

They’re waiting for a lunch that will be distributed as part of the Summer Food Service Program.

It’s only the fourth day of the program this summer, but already the kids know the drill. They sit at the picnic tables and wait for instructions about what to do before they can get their sack lunch.

The program is run by Food Finders Food Bank.

Director of Community Impact Kier Crites-Sherger says these kids are only a fraction of the nearly 30,000 locally who are food insecure.

She says Food Finders coordinates 25 Summer Food Service Program sites in 6 counties, including Tippecanoe. The locations are near elementary schools that have a large number of students on the free and reduced lunch program.

“A lot of the kids are receiving probably a free breakfast and a free lunch at school," says Crites-Sherger. "And so all of a sudden when school’s out they’re not receiving either of those and, you know, whether you like it or not that does put an extra burden on the family. And if they have 2 or 3 kids, that’s 6 extra meals they now need to provide per day for their children. So we hope to just try and bridge that gap a little bit.”

Crites-Sherger says Food Finders has hired four interns from Purdue who are responsible for delivering and serving the meals, as well as providing some type of educational or physical activity.

She says this is the first year the meals are available not only to the kids, but also to their parents. There’s also more fresh fruits and vegetables this summer.

Indiana Department of Education Summer Food Specialist Tina Skinner says studies show hunger and learning are linked because adequate daily nutrition has a lot to do with childhood development.

“So the Department of Education is very much interested in making sure that we can first of all fill that nutritional gap so that kids can continue to develop throughout the summer," says Skinner. "And then secondly that when they return to school they are ready to learn.”

Skinner says the state DOE works with schools and nonprofits that want to set up summer feeding programs. But she says the logistics of starting one are often more challenging than finding funding.

“More of a problem with schools and private non-profits is actually finding qualified help to provide the programming that would go along with the meal service,” says Skinner.

National Summer Learning Association CEO Sarah Pitcock says funding and support for summer programs nationwide tends to be shaky at best. She says when school districts and communities are in the black, they invest in such efforts.  But when schools fall on hard times, summer programs are often the first to be cut. Pitcock says that’s very destabilizing for low-income families who are counting on safe, productive activities for their children that they would otherwise not be able to afford. 

“Part of the problem is that summer learning doesn’t belong to any one agency or institution," says Pitcock. "So it’s easy for people to say ‘If I cut my program there will always be the rec center or the library.’ And there’s not a lot of coordination or accountability and ownership around that.”

She says research shows the majority of kids lose 2-to-3 months of math skills over the summer if they don’t practice, and low-income children also lose the same amount in their reading skills.

“And I think there’s a really common misperception among parents that the teachers make up for that," says Pitcock. "And what we know from a lot of research is that’s just not the case. So those losses accumulate over time.”

Pitcock says by the end of 5th grade, low-income children are, on average, two-and-a-half years behind their higher-income peers. And she says those academic losses are often compounded by the fact the kids don’t have enough to eat.

“You know we live in a reality right now where more than half of the public school children in our country live in poverty," says Pitcock. "During the summer only about 15-percent of children nationally who qualify for free and reduced price lunch have access to meals.”

More than two-million children across the country will receive meals through the Summer Food Service Program this year.