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Adding a Helping of Books to Nutritious Summer Meals

Posted by Hans Billger, Public Affairs Specialist, Food and Nutrition Service in Food and Nutrition
May 20, 2015
A boy reading a book with a man
Enrichment activities help keep children and teens engaged, while they receive a healthy meal or snack at USDA summer meals sites.

The following guest blog was submitted by Kyle Zimmer, CEO of First Book, a nonprofit social enterprise that provides access to free and low-cost books to children in need. Many USDA summer meals sites provide not only healthy meals and snacks, but also offer physical activity and enrichment activities to keep children and teens engaged and coming back.  First Book serves up a helping of books and educational resources to support these meals sites while they provide healthy options when school is out for the summer.

By Kyle Zimmer, CEO of First Book

We all know that nutrition is closely tied to school performance.  Brains and bodies need healthy foods to nourish and nurture their development.  While schools play a critical role in providing free and reduced cost breakfasts and lunches during the school year, those needs can be even greater in the summer when children are out of school and families’ limited food budgets need to account for those extra meals. Fortunately, thanks to the federally-funded Summer Food Service Program (SFSP), healthy summer meals are available for children in low-income neighborhoods. We just have to work together to make sure families know about summer meals programs available in their community.

Last summer, First Book, the nonprofit social enterprise I lead, partnered with USDA to make it easy for these programs to use books to build engaging programming at SFSP sites and for summer meal sponsors to know how to partner with us to promote their programs. First Book already works with more than 170,000 classrooms, programs and hundreds of SFSP sites serving children in need, helping to increase access to affordable, culturally relevant books and resources.

This year, we added a one-stop page and launched a new Summer Resources section in our First Book Marketplace. Thanks to C&S Wholesale Grocers and in partnership with No Kid Hungry, we added a Healthy Kids Summer Book Bundles, created specifically for summer meal providers. We also have a list of handpicked books by grade, from kindergarten through high school, that are easy to add to a reading corner, lending library or to enrichment activities that keep kids engaged and ready to learn, when school is back in session.

According to the National Summer Learning Association, more than half of the achievement gap between lower- and higher-income youth can be explained by unequal access to summer learning opportunities. And the effects are cumulative, both for children who don’t have access to books and educational materials, and for those who do.  By the end of fifth grade, kids from low-income families are nearly three grades behind their peers in reading skills. By contrast, children who were given access to books over the summer, after three summers, performed an astounding 35-40 percent better on reading achievement tests than those without access to books over the summer months.

If you're sponsoring a summer meals program, here's what you can do to add books to your summer meals program and enrichment activities:

  • Sign up with First Book.  All Summer Food Service Programs sites are eligible to sign up with First Book.  Registration is easy and free.
  • If your community is holding a summer meals program launch, think about using it as an opportunity to distribute books. Consider hosting a “Books on Wheels” program as part of your summer meals program launch.
  • It is easy for your summer meals program volunteers to use our books and free downloadable resources for summer fun activities with children.
  • If you need funding to bring more books to your community, First Book can help host a Virtual Book Drive.  Go to, click on “Get Involved” and go to the Virtual Book Drives tab to learn more.  

Together we can enrich the quality of education for children in low-income communities and help all our children get the nutrition they need to read, learn and succeed.

Category/Topic: Food and Nutrition