Like many other American children, I counted down the minutes until summer. The weather grew warmer, the days grew longer, and school was nonexistent. I always welcomed the relief from the classroom and jumped with joy for all the cookouts, picnics, and cold watermelon. For me, summer vacation was a time filled with bliss. Little did I know, it was actually blissful ignorance.
Why ignorance? Because hunger does not take a vacation. 29 million children rely on the free or reduced-price lunch they receive at school. For these children, summer is not a time of exuberance; summer is time of hunger. Only 2.7 million children received meals from the USDA Summer Food Service Program last summer, compared to the 29.7 million children that participated in the USDA National School Lunch Program (NSLP) in 2018. That leaves 27 million children without assistance to food during the summer.
Food-insecure children are more likely to experience the “summer slide.” While children from low-income and middle-class families experience similar levels of cognitive growth during the school year, children from low-income families lag far behind during the summer. Eighty-percent of the reading gap alone may be attributable to summer learning. Nutritious meals protect against this cognitive decline and could help lessen summer learning loss.
The entire family is affected by the loss of school breakfasts and lunches. Families with children who participate in NSLP during the school year are unable to provide adequate food for the entire family over the summer. Why? They cannot afford the higher summer grocery bill. These families may cope with the lack of food by having the older children skip meals, or by going into debt to pay for food using payday loans or credit cards.
Summer may be temporary, but the effects of summer hunger can last a lifetime. Without access to healthy and nutritious meals, children from low-income households often result to eating less healthy, cheaper food options. This can cause these children to gain weight two to three times faster during the summer and lead to long-term chronic diseases such as iron deficiency anemia and type II diabetes.
A lack of adequate food takes a toll on these children’s mental health as well. Studies show that household food insecurity leads to higher risks of child mental and behavioral health difficulties. A nutritious and balanced diet is crucial during early life due to its link with mental health outcomes in children. While summer may only last a few months, the harmful physical and mental effects of food insecurity continue to take a toll on the children for the rest of their lives.
I was always anxious for summer to come, but these children are anxious for their next meal to come. What would it look like to close the gap between the 29.7 million children receiving reduced-price or free meals during the school year and the 2.7 million during the summer? It would look like 27 million children experiencing health and education benefits, and ultimately, long-term economic improvements for low-income children, families, and communities.
Dallas Cowboys’ Center, Travis Frederick, has partnered with TangoTab to lead the charge head-on in the fight against childhood summer hunger. Feed kids this summer by joining the Travis Frederick’s 72,000 Summer Meal Challenge now.