The following guest blog discusses the importance of USDA Summer Meals Programs, which provide children with healthy food during the summer, when the school meals they depend on disappear. Childhood memories shared by the writer demonstrate how critical healthy meals are to the growth and development of children. USDA’s approaches to making summer meals accessible are also highlighted.
By Jesus Garcia, Special Assistant, Office of Communications, Administration for Children and Families (HHS)
When I was young, summers seemed to last forever. Days were long and hot in rural South Texas.
One thing I looked forward to after riding my bicycle all over the neighborhood was a nice lunch prepared by my grandmother Angelita. Meals like arroz con pollo (rice with chicken) or carne guisada (stewed meat) with a side of beans provided the energy I needed to keep up with an adventurous summer.
Good food not only helps your body climb hills when you’re a kid, but it helps your brain develop in order to learn new stuff. For some children in our communities, though, not enough healthy food is available for them to enjoy and help them grow. Luckily, a very helpful program exists that communities can use to tackle this problem: USDA’s Summer Meal Programs.
Summer Meal Programs help close the nutrition gap children face when schools let out for summer — when children no longer receive school meals they relied on throughout the school year. USDA reports that 22 million children and teens receive free and reduced-priced meals through the National School Lunch Program. But only about 1 in 5 of those (around 3.8 million) participate in summer meal programs.
USDA makes it easy for children, parents and community leaders to find the nearest summer meal site through its Summer Meal Site Finder. This free, web-based application features an easily-searchable map to help locate sites serving summer meals. The site locator is available in English and Spanish, and it includes a mobile version.
You can also call 1-866-348-6479 (English) or 1-877-842-6273 (Spanish) to find a site near you. You can also text FOOD (for English) or COMIDA (for Spanish) to 877-877 to find a meal site near you during the summer.
I appreciate and support this program, especially because USDA is focused on increasing summer meal sites in rural and tribal areas where access is sometimes a problem. In the last four years, USDA has provided technical assistance to a select group of states each year to increase the participation of eligible children in the program. This year USDA is working closely with Delaware, Minnesota and Nebraska, as well as Tribal lands in the Southwest Region.
A combination of factors, including high rates of food insecurity, poverty rates, and recommendations from USDA's Food and Nutrition Service Regional Offices and anti-hunger advocacy groups, led to the selection of these areas to receive technical assistance to address hunger and access issues. USDA is working to address capacity and interest in these areas to expand summer meal programs.
From forging innovative partnerships to creative problem-solving remedies, the folks at USDA are coming up with different ways to connect youth to healthy meals. From retrofitting buses to overcoming transportation issues, to tapping into community volunteerism to increase site access, to operating mobile sites in rural areas to close the gap between children and healthy meals, USDA is working collaboratively with states, sponsors and partners to close the summer meal gap.
Parents can trust that these summer meal sites will provide a nutritious meal in a community setting that will keep youth engaged. Make plans now to help your community connect with this valuable service. Let’s allow every child to experience summers they will never forget!
For more information, visit the program's Frequently Asked Questions section.