Hot and Hungry

Free meals are available for low-income children all summer. Why aren’t they getting them?

By Andrea Strong

School’s out and the much-anticipated summer break is here, leaving noisy classrooms and art-covered hallways empty and silent. But that silence comes at a price. For many low-income children, the muggy march to fall means a lack of access to school-day breakfasts and lunches, meals that are crucial to their academic achievement, brain development, and overall health. 

This nutrition gap is especially dire for children in New York City, where the Department of Education (DOE) reached only 27 percent of hungry low-income children last summer according to the July 2019 Food Research Action Summer Meals Report.  

According to Hunger-Free America, 324,432 children in New York City live in households that are food insecure—defined by the United States Department of Agriculture as lacking consistent access to enough food for an active, healthy life. What’s more, the food insecurity rate for children in NYC is nearly 11 percent higher than it is for children nationwide, making access to summer meals even more critical.   

Barriers to Summer Meals Participation in New York City 

The DOE’s Summer Meals Program has the capacity to feed every hungry child in New York City. The program operates at 1200 locations including schools, pools, parks, homeless shelters, pop-up sites at NYCHA housing and five mobile food trucks that serve sandwiches across the city; however, it reached only one in three low-income children last summer. 

“A barrier to participation in summer meals – whether in New York City or in other communities across New York State – is always program awareness,” says Rachel Sabella, Director of No Kid Hungry, NY.  “Only a fraction of the kids who need these meals are getting them.”

The lack of participation caught the attention of Schools Chancellor Richard A. Carranza and Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer, who convened a task force in April to increase awareness. 

The Task Force’s recommendations have improved outreach in several ways, including newly branded “summer meals envelopes” (in 10 DOE languages), which were used to distribute end of year report cards at every public school, to remind families of the program. In addition, the Task Force held a June 13th “Day of Action” at all Manhattan Title I elementary schools, distributing summer meals flyers for kids to take home before the end of the school year. 

Volunteers from Hunger Free America, AmeriCorps National Service, Share Our Strength and Borough President Brewer’s office are also going door-to-door in all five boroughs, handing out flyers in 10 languages to spread awareness of the program. Distribution will continue through late July. 

To help make meal locations more transparent, summer meals sites and menus are available through the Office of Food and Nutrition Services website and mobile app and by texting ‘FOOD’ or ‘COMIDA’ to 877-877 to find the summer meals site nearest to you.

The Task Force also addressed issues concerning meal service at swimming pools. Last summer constituents reported that they were being denied summer meals at area swimming pools unless they wore a bathing suit and/or swam beforehand, which is not required. The Task Force met with members of the Department of Parks and Recreation to ensure that program eligibility is clear and, where appropriate, to identify an alternative meal service area to avoid conflicts with deck clothing rules.

The DOE is also partnering with the New York Police Department (NYPD) to run pop-up sites that distribute meals throughout the city and at popular events like the NYPD Harmony Day Picnics, Police Athletic League (PAL) PLAYSTREETS and Youth Police Academies. 

To drum up excitement about summer meals and keep kids coming back, the Office of Food and Nutrition Services has for the first time augmented its traditional distribution methods and menus with a “Promotional Food Truck.” The trucks are modeled after similar programs operating in other parts of the country and serving a school-year selection of hot meals including hamburgers, rice and beans, teriyaki chicken dumplings and stewed chicken at three locations (two in Manhattan and one in Queens) seven days a week throughout the summer. The truck was funded by Share Our Strength and the American Dairy Association. “This innovative way of connecting kids to food in New York City is exciting; we can’t wait to see how hot meals will spark even more interest and participation in the summer meals program,” says Sabella.

While these efforts have resulted in improved participation—the DOE reports that it served 100,000 more meals in the first week of summer this year than it did last year—however, most advocates agree that more work is necessary.

“Despite increased efforts to make healthy food readily accessible through summer meal programs, we have to acknowledge that a lot more can be done with regard to outreach in order to make sure that families are aware of the resources and programs available to them and their children at sites in their communities,” said City Council Speaker Corey Johnson. “It’s unacceptable for these programs to be so underutilized while so many children struggle to get enough to eat in the summer.”

Many believe the city could clearly do more – even this summer. First it could put more food trucks on the road; it only has one food truck serving hot meals, and just four mobile trucks operating with cold sandwiches according to the DOE website.  

It could also serve meals for longer stretches of the day. While the city’s lunches are served between 11:15 and 3pm at pools, its school sites are only open from 11:15-1:15 and some are only open for half an hour, from 12:00-12:30pm.

Moreover, while its NYPD partnership program is one way for the summer lunch program to reach more children, its efficacy is dependent on the relationship the NYPD has with its communities, and advocates emphasize that these sorts of partnerships can only do so much. 

“I’m glad the NYPD is working to improve its relations with low-income communities, and there is no better way to do that than facilitate distribution of free summer meals for kids,” says Joel Berg,CEO, Hunger Free America. “But no police department can — or should —be a substitute for well-functioning government social service and education agencies. The NYC Departments of Education and Youth and Community Development, along with the NYC Housing Authority, really need to step up to the plate to work together to ensure that all low-income neighborhoods are adequately covered by open summer meals sites.” 

Brooklyn Borough President Eric L. Adams says that more attention must be paid not only to expand outreach efforts, particularly in parts of the city with the highest rates of hunger and food insecurity, but also to improve the quality of meals served. Adams points to the DOE’s summer lunch menu, which includes highly-processed, bag-to-oven foods like popcorn chicken, mozzarella sticks, cheese pizza, beef tacos, and beef hamburgers. 

“We also have to inspect what we expect, making sure that these meals meet our high expectations for quality nutrition,” he says. “Seventy percent of children have early signs of heart disease, which sounds shocking until you see what’s on the menu in most schools: foods high in fat and sugar, with almost no nutritional value. It’s not enough to offer free meals if they’re feeding the public health crisis. The introduction of Meatless Mondays into our schools has been a positive step, but it’s clear we have much more work to do.” 

The National Summer Meals Gap and Congregate Feeding Rule

While New York City’s efforts to increase participation are at least a step in the right direction, the reality is that the system as a whole is broken. Rather than becoming more robust, summer meals participation nationally is on the decline. 

According to the July 2019 Food Research Action Center, 2018 saw its third year of diminished national summer meals participation, losing 171,000 meals, an especially stark decline when compared to the National School Lunch Program, which saw an increase in average daily participation. 

The summer meals gap can be attributed to many factors, including a decrease in summer enrichment programming since the recession, transportation challenges, severe weather, lack of awareness, and lack of open sites. In addition, increased fear of ICE raids in many immigrant communities has also led to a drop in participation. In the first week of July, for instance, according to the Santa Barbara Independent, rumors of the presence of ICE agents lowered the number of lunches served at Santa Barbara’s Jardin de las Rosas housing complex from 30 to six.

Finally, participation requires jumping through bureaucratic hoops, in particular the Child Nutrition Act’s “congregate feeding requirement,” which requires children to travel to a central location and eat their meals together with staff at the site in order for the state to be reimbursed for the meal. 

The rule is meant to ensure that children are eating healthy meals in safe, interactive environments. More often than not, however, it means that they are forced to skip meals because they are not permitted to take their lunches to go and head to work with families, or to go home, to camp, a playground or a park. The requirement is particularly challenging because feeding sites are often unairconditioned school cafeterias, which can be dangerously hot in the dead of summer. 

It has also been quite detrimental to New York City’s summer food truck program, when kids want to grab their lunches and go; not every truck is positioned near a picnic area or a place to sit. It has also affected participation among summer school students, who were served lunch at dismissal but were not permitted to leave with it, and therefore went without. 

“The congregate feeding rule runs counter to the mission of hunger prevention. It is more about preventing people who are poor from taking a meal for a hungry parent or grandparent,” says Liz Accles, Executive Director of Community Food Advocates. “This is public policy driven by fraud prevention rather than getting meals to hungry children.”

This year, thanks to the work of Accles’s Community Food Advocates, the DOE has moved lunch to the middle of the summer school day, ensuring that at least the kids in summer programs can abide by the congregate rule and eat their lunch.

The program’s 18 and under age limitation is another formidable hurdle. “You go to these sites and see children sitting with their grandparents and parents, who are also hungry, and only the child is permitted to eat,” says Joel Berg, CEO of Hunger Free America. “It makes it very difficult for children to eat if they have to watch their other family members go hungry while they do so.”

The inability of adult family members and caregivers to eat with their children was a topic of discussion among participants at Borough President Gale Brewer’s Task Force. Without the ability to feed these caregivers because of maximum age limits imposed by the federal government, the Task Force focused on connecting adults with nearby emergency food providers and listing summer meal-program locations at food pantries and soup kitchens. 

Anti-hunger advocates believe that NYC can do more than just connect adults with food pantries. “The federal government will always need to be the top source of funding for summer meals programming, but NYC can and should supplement federal funds with targeted NYC funds for feeding parents, covering weekends, and paying for meals at places—like Flushing Main Street or certain beaches—which auditors have said don’t qualify as federally-reimbursable congregate feeding sites,” says Berg.

Opportunities for Reform — The 2019 Child Nutrition Reauthorization Bill

Push-back against the congregate feeding requirement is growing stronger with a Democratic majority in Congress and an important opportunity in 2019 to pass a strong new Child Nutrition Act —known as the Childhood Nutrition Reauthorization (CNR)–that will improve access to summer meals. The last CNR bill — the Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010 — made a number of gains in expanding and increasing access to healthy food and nutrition programs. 

The NYC Alliance for CNR, co-convened by Equity Advocates and the Food Bank for NYC, is a coalition of 30 organizations working to expand summer meals access. 

Advocates from Share Our Strength are pushing for reform to CNR that would allow states and communities to have more flexibility in how they implement their summer meals programs. “The program needs more flexibility to allow for more efficient and effective programming to reach children in underserved communities through options such as home-delivered meals (similar to what Meals on Wheels does for seniors), allowing children to leave a site with a meal, or providing a benefit to purchase food where summer meals programming is not operating,” says No Kid Hungry’s Sabella. “This way, states would be able to feed more of their hungry kids, no matter where they live.” 

Advocates are also lobbying for an increase in the USDA’s Summer Electronic Benefits Transfer for Children (SEBTC) program, which helps families get around the barriers to food access by giving them direct access to cash to combat food insecurity. Since 2011 the program has given a small group of low-income pilot families in four states and three tribal nations a debit card with a fixed dollar value ($30 or $60 per month for three months) to purchase groceries during the summer months. 

A 2016 report found that participation in SEBTC yielded several positive results, including reduced food insecurity, improved nutrition, and higher rates of participation in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program and the Women, Infants and Children program. This summer, however, rather than expanding the pilot program, the USDA took a step back and contracted it to serve only two states and two tribal nations. 

Three “marker” bills have been introduced to change the dysfunctional summer meals program. First, the Stop Child Summer Hunger Act, introduced by Senator Pat Murray (D-WA) and Congresswoman Susan Davis (D-CA 53rd District), would provide families who have children eligible for free and reduced-price school meals with a $150 maximum electronic benefit transfer (EBT) card to help them obtain nutrition during the summer. 

Two other bills would also work to shrink the summer nutrition gap. Senators John Boozman (R-AR) and Patrick Leahy (D-VT) have introduced the Hunger-Free Summer for Kids Act of 2019, and Senators Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) and Liza Murkowski (R-AK) have introduced the Summer Meals Act of 2019, both of which revise the Richard B. Russell National School Lunch Act to expand summer meals access. 

The Hunger-Free Summer for Kids Act proposes two options for states. The first would allow for non-congregate meals to be consumed off-site through innovative means like mobile feeding programs (such as a food truck or a “meals on wheels” set up) and backpack meal programs. The other option would authorize the summer EBT program, which would provide eligible families $30 per summer month per child, with a maximum of $100 per child per year, to purchase eligible food items from Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) approved retailers.

Senators Gillibrand and Murkowski’s bill would expand a school district’s eligibility for the free summer meals program, by redefining “areas in which poor economic conditions exist,” as areas in which at least 40 percent (currently, 50 percent) of the children have been determined to be eligible for free or reduced-price meals under the school lunch and breakfast programs.

It would also expand the program to include weekends and holidays during the school year,  increase non-congregate food opportunities, add transportation grants to bring rural children to feeding sites, and expand flexibility so that children could receive up to three meals a day. 

The hope is that these three “marker” bills will be passed by the fall and that their language will also be incorporated into the 2019 CNR bill, providing comprehensive reform to a summer meals program that is deeply flawed and leaves millions of children hungry.  

“A few practical policy changes at the federal level will help more kids get the nutrition they need during the summer months,” says Lisa Davis, Senior Vice President of Share Our Strength. “These bills are a step in the right direction and send a strong message that we need to do more.”

Andrea Strong writes about the intersection of food, business, law, and policy. She is the founder of the NYC Healthy School Food Alliance, a parent-led advocacy group working to bring holistic reform to school food in NYC. Follow her @strongbuzz @NYCSchoolFood.

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