By Matt Smith, Aunt Bertha Policy Analyst

Over 20 million children rely on free and reduced-cost meals at school. During the summer months, the federal government funds programs so these children have access to meals while school is not in session.

The two main summermeal programs, the National School Lunch Program (NSLP) Seamless Summer Option and the Summer Food Service Program (SFSP) served 2.9 million children in 2018. While the NSLP Seamless Option enables schools to continue serving students through the summer, SFSP can be administered through a number of community partners including faith-based organizations, local government agencies, and nonprofits. 2.7 million of the 2.9 million children served though these summer meal programs are fed through SFSP, which cost $484 million in fiscal year 2018. 

Although these programs serve millions of children, only 1 in 7 of the children reached during the school year receive these meals during the summer. With millions of children clearly in need of free and reduced meals, why do we see such a steep drop in participation during the summer months?

One of the main reasons is that the current eligibility requirements for these two summer food programs require such a high concentration of poverty that many communities with large low-income populations remain ineligible. NSLP and SFSP only serve communities where at least 50 percent of the children qualify for free and reduced price meals, communities where 50 percent of the children actually served are eligible for free and reduced-price meals, and migrant shelters. Because of these requirements, many communities with relatively high concentrations of poverty do not participate in these programs.

Another obstacle to accessing these services during the summer is a lack of reliable transportation. Although many schools continue to serve meals during the summer months, the school buses that many low-income children rely on to get to school aren’t in service. The SFSP reaches children at places other than schools where children may naturally congregate, but people are not always aware of the free-meal services being provided and reliably getting to these locations remains a significant obstacle. 

The Food Research & Action Center calculates the average daily participation rates in summer food programs compared to their school-year equivalent for each state. The U.S. average was 14.1 percent for the 2017-2018 school year, meaning that only 14.1 percent of likely eligible children are receiving free summer meals.

Source: Food Research & Action Center, 2017-2018 school-year data, graphic by Aunt Bertha.

Some states such as New York and Vermont have roughly double the national average daily participation rates, while other states such as Texas and Nebraska have rates roughly half of the national average. This wide variation in participation results from how dispersed or concentrated each state’s low-income population is and how these states choose to reach low-income children during the summer months. In her story on summer food programs for The New Food Economy, Jessica Fu highlighted two innovative approaches in the last few years that show how states are working to reach this underserved population.

Five years ago, New York City began using food trucks to serve free summer meals. These food trucks are able to go where children congregate during the summer, such as public parks, and serve children directly where they play. This approach helps to overcome one of the most difficult obstacles with accessing summer food programs while easing the burden on families trying to access healthy meals.

Michigan and Tennessee were both awarded grants from the United States Department of Agriculture to pilot a benefit payment card similar to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), called the Summer Electronic Benefit Transfer to Children (SEBTC). This program provides a cash benefit that is transferred to a payment card that the family can use to buy food when they are grocery shopping. Beneficiaries of this program no longer need to travel to designated locations to get a summer meal; they can integrate the benefit into their normal meal planning. If expanded, this model could prove to be a critical development for rural areas or communities that don’t meet the 50 percent summer-food-program-eligibility threshold. This is because the child’s free and reduced meal eligibility could allow them to be automatically enrolled during the summer months without obstacles related to where they live.

Summer meal programs serve as a critical stopgap for low-income children while school is no longer in session, but millions of low-income kids remain out of their reach. The federal government should support more opportunities for state and communities to continue developing innovative solutions tailored to their citizens in need. This may require lowering eligibility requirements and encouraging more states to pursue thoughtful pilot projects like the ones in New York, Michigan, and Tennessee. 

Matt Smith is a policy analyst at Aunt Bertha who has completed the government service hat-trick (having worked for federal, state, and local government). Prior to writing this post, Matt enjoyed a simple life of relative anonymity, hiking his dog Eli on the trails surrounding Austin, Texas.