Across Arkansas this summer, young children are eating free meals at schools, Boys & Girls Clubs, churches, bible camps, city parks, libraries and other locations as part of a broad effort to end childhood hunger — and its harmful consequences for children’s health and education.
“We want to make sure that kids have good nutritious meals where they live, learn and play,” says Patty Barker of Arkansas Hunger Relief Alliance, an Arkansas Campaign for Grade-Level Reading (AR-GLR) partner.
Summer is particularly challenging because children from low-income families lose easy access to free and reduced-price breakfast and lunch offered by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) via national school meal programs.
About 288,000 Arkansas kids up to age 18 — more than 60 percent of students in this high-poverty rural state — are eligible for USDA-sponsored meals during the school year. But because the USDA's summer meal programs may be less readily available, many kids go without. Some go hungry or eat unhealthy food.
Unlike during the school year, summer meals are not automatically served in schools. Instead, schools and community organizations opt to be meal-site sponsors, which includes covering staff and equipment costs. Getting kids to sites is hampered by lack of transportation — especially in rural areas — and by meal schedules that conflict with parents’ work schedules.
But Arkansas has stepped up work to expand children’s access to summer meals since 2010 when it joined No Kid Hungry, a national effort led by the nonprofit Share Our Strength. This summer, Arkansas hopes to sustain last summer’s progress, when more than 2.8 million meals were served to children at more than 800 sites operated by 224 sponsors.
Arkansas’s summer meals work includes raising awareness, recruiting sponsors and providing technical assistance and grants. “Schools are our first targets because they’re in the business of serving kids,” says Barker, who directs Arkansas No Kid Hungry. “But we also help communities identify other available resources.”
In one community, the local WIC office provides summer meals. “Parents also are encouraged to bring their kids in ahead of the school rush to get their checkups and immunizations,” says SiKia Brown, Arkansas No Kid Hungry out-of-school programs director.
After-school programs offering a USDA-sponsored meal or snack must provide an enrichment component, so they are encouraged to participate year-round. “If they carry that through the summer, it combats summer slide and summer hunger,” says Brown.
By linking nutrition, health and summer learning, Arkansas is in sync with the GLR Campaign’s approach of braiding strategies from its solutions and focus areas to produce gains. “Unless children read or participate in quality summer programs, they risk losing two or three months of reading skills,” says Angela Duran, AR-GLR campaign director.
“Quality summer learning programs, especially those offering USDA-sponsored meals, address the needs of the whole child — physical, social, emotional and cognitive.”
Other site sponsors include public housing authorities and nonprofits serving meals to senior citizens. In rural Grant County, a ministerial alliance operates sites at churches and school gymnasiums. In Little Rock, Arkansas Children’s Hospital began offering summer meals to all children visiting its clinics after 22 percent of families with kids under age 4 reported, via an emergency room survey, not having a constant nutritious food source.
Work remains. In 2012, about one-third of Arkansas’s 75 counties had no summer meal sites. By 2014, all counties had sites. But due to challenges in rural communities and heavy reliance upon volunteers, 12 counties had no sites in 2015. “Success, we’ve found, involves community champions and partnerships. We’ve learned it’s hard to sustain,” says Barker.
This has prompted efforts to recruit and retain stable organizations as year-round sponsors and, especially in rural counties, to find more vendors to deliver meals at parks, pools and remote locations identified through community mapping.
“We need to show people what hunger looks like in their community but also show them the resources they have to address the problem themselves,” says Brown.
For more information contact Patty Barker at 501-399-9999 or email@example.com. To find a location nationwide, text the word FOOD to 877 877, call 1-866-3-HUNGRY or 1-877-8-HAMBRE, or visit this website. Photos: Arkansas Hunger Relief Alliance; Publication Date: Summer 2016.