From Flyers to Tweets to Apps, Food Programs are Looking for Hungry Kids this Summer

Jul 23, 2014, 11:38 AM


While more than 30 million children receive free or reduced-cost meals through the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) National School Lunch Program during the school year, only about 3 million of those kids sign on for summer meals through the USDA’s Summer Food Service Program, according to agency statistics. While not all 30 million need the summer meals—many are enrolled in summer programs that offer food or have parents that are able to take responsibility for providing meals—USDA and hunger experts know that millions are going hungry each summer, impacting their day-to-day lives, the learning gains of the previous year and learning readiness for the next grade.

“Most of the reason eligible kids aren’t getting meals in the summer is simply because parents don’t know about them,” said Audrey Rowe, head of the USDA’s Food and Nutrition Service, which runs the meal programs.

Last year, USDA made increasing the number of kids getting summer meals (sites typically serve one meal and a snack or two meals) a top priority, according to a the report Summer Doesn’t Take a Vacation, published by the Food Research and Action Center (FRAC), a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit aimed at ending child hunger. According to the report, the summer of 2013 marked the first major increase in the number of low-income children eating sponsored summer meals in 10 years, and the program grew last year to serve nearly three million children, an increase of 161,000 children or 5.7 percent from 2012. This represents the largest percentage increase since 2003.

To reach those increases, the USDA worked with organizations including FRAC, Feeding America, Share Our Strength, the YMCA and other national, state and local stakeholders to target states with high rates of poverty, food insecurity and low participation rates in summer food programs. Efforts ran from high-level conversations with state governors—some of whom had known nothing about summer meal programs—to dozens of webinars to teach officials and private partners the nuts and bolts of running the programs. For example, sites are eligible in communities where more than half the area children receive subsidized school meals. 

Getting the word out to parents that meals are available, and when and where they are served, is a critical part of the effort, said Rowe, and both the USDA and its partners have launched a range of marketing tactics. USDA has a Summer Food Rocks online app that lets users input a zip code to find program sites. Share Our Strength also added to its website almost a dozen resource ideas to promote awareness of meals in a community, including:

  • Posters for public spaces that list a number to text for meal site locations.
  • Postcards to be mailed to families with the texting information.
  • Cards for kids to be handed out at meal sites so they can remind parents and share the information with friends.
  • Sample newsletter blurbs; blog posts; press releases; letters to the editor; social media posts; web buttons; and ideas for Instagram and Pinterest to promote awareness.

According to the FRAC report, while social media is a draw, traditional media such as radio and television advertisements are also critical. So are ads to call 211 call centers and the National Hunger Hotline (1-866-3-HUNGRY) for website information.

Some state agencies, such as the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services and the Hawaii Department of Education, have collaborated with the SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, formerly the food stamp program) offices in their states to advertise summer meal sites to households receiving SNAP benefits.

Partner agencies are also sharing stories about the importance of the program on their blogs. The YMCA in Indianapolis recently wrote about seven-year-old Isaiah, who hopes to grow up to be a basketball or soccer player. When asked what his favorite thing about the volunteer-run YMCA after-school program at his housing complex, he said "lunch” because on "Tuesdays and Thursdays we eat real food." When asked why he loves lunch, he said because his “stomach hurts sometimes" and it can be hard to get food at home, especially when his mother is at work and he’s left on his own.

Challenges remain for increasing the meal programs, including many schools that close during the summer or that limit participation in meals to kids enrolled in other summer programs and transpiration challenges, especially in rural communities where distances can be impossible to travel by foot or public transportation.

Rowe said the USDA also wants to build in greater flexibility.

“In Chicago, for example, a chosen site also had a lot of crime and so we were able to make a decision to have kids pick up their meals and go home,” she said. And in areas without programs, they have had demonstration projects adding to SNAP benefits for the summer to make it easier for parents to feed their kids.

Still, said Rowe, the biggest challenge remains getting the word out about the existing meal sites.

“I am amazed still at how many people have never heard of the summer feeding program,” she said. “This year we’re working with rural housing developments, and so many of these folks said I never knew this program existed. When did you all start?”

This commentary originally appeared on the RWJF New Public Health blog.