For Many Kids, a Boost to Summer School Meals Is a ‘Game Changer’ | Despite SNAP Benefit Cuts, Kids Are Getting Better Summer School Meals

For Many Kids, a Boost to Summer School Meals Is a ‘Game Changer’

Last year’s omnibus bill cut SNAP benefits but increased funding for summer meals. For many districts, it’s helping address a hunger gap. 

Tyden Brownlee, 5, picks up a free school lunch at Olympic Hills Elementary School in Seattle, Washington. (Photo by Karen Ducey/Getty Images)

Tyden Brownlee, 5, picks up a free school lunch at Olympic Hills Elementary School in Seattle, Washington. (Photo by Karen Ducey/Getty Images)

In the northeast corner of Indiana, soybean and corn fields stretch across the landscape, separating the schools of the East Noble School Corporation by as much as 20 miles. Last summer, when interim food service director Roger Urick geared up to offer summer meals to the district’s 3,400 students, pandemic-era waivers allowing him to offer to-go meals to families had expired, forcing him to go back to the old model.

Instead of being able to offer take-away meals at several locations in the area, Urick was required to serve meals at two designated locations where kids had to come in and eat their meals on site. (In the school nutrition world, this is known as a “congregate” setting.)

Participation dropped to half of what it had been the two summers prior. “We found it was difficult for parents and kids to come to our two buildings and eat on site,” says Urick.

Before the pandemic, an estimated 6 out of 7 kids who qualified for free or reduced lunch could not access food in the summer largely due to the mandate that it be eaten on site, a problem that’s particularly acute in rural regions.

“We have known for a very long time that structural, fundamental changes were needed in the summer meals program because of barriers like transportation to meal sites,” says Carolyn Vega, associate director of policy at Share Our Strength, the nonprofit whose No Kid Hungry campaign focuses on access to summer meals. “School buses aren’t running over the summer. A lot of summer meals would be (served) outside, but there can be extreme heat or rain.”

Early in the pandemic, though, congregate anything was forbidden and restrictions around summer feeding were stripped away. Families were allowed to pick up several days’ worth of meals in the summer or even have them delivered. As a result, the number of summer meals served nationwide in July 2020 was nearly triple the number served in July 2019, according to No Kid Hungry.

In December 2022, as part of the end-of-year $1.7 trillion budget bill, Congress approved $29 billion in meal programs for low-income kids, and permanently loosened the rules around congregate feeding during the summer—a win for child nutrition advocates. But it came with a cost, as Democrats agreed to end pandemic-era SNAP “emergency allotments” a few months early. (The end to those allotments has left millions of Americans with slashed benefits.)

“We would have liked to see those allotments continue,” says Clarissa Hayes, the deputy director of school and out-of-school time programs for the Food Research and Action Center (FRAC). “We never like to see one program cut to prop up another program.”

The boost in school meal funding will pay for two major changes. Starting this summer, families in rural areas will once again be allowed to pick up meals or have them delivered, if districts and community groups are available to do so. This “non-congregate” option is expected to benefit up to 8 million children living in rural areas, according to a USDA spokesperson. And come next summer, families of children who qualify for free and reduced meals at school will receive a $40 monthly grocery stipend when school is out, creating permanent summer assistance.

These two changes will “work together to end summer hunger and fill that gap that many families face,” says Hayes.

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Long Overdue Option

The history of summer food service dates to the late 1960s, when the federal government provided grants to states to offer meals over break. Decades later, summer feeding programs have greatly expanded and are entrenched in many low-income and rural communities.

School districts participate in the Seamless Summer Option (SSO), which provides reimbursement for all meals delivered to kids under the age of 18. All children eat free in communities where at least 50 percent of students qualify for free or reduced-price lunch. The Summer Food Service Program (SFSP), meanwhile, offers reimbursement to summer enrichment programs (such as camps and religious organizations) that offer meals in low-income areas.

Over the last few months, after the USDA greenlit “non-congregate” meal services in rural areas, most states opted to participate, and school districts, along with community groups that provide summer meals, have been busy submitting plans to whichever state agency oversees SFSP or SSO.

Vega, at Share Our Strength, says offering more flexible feeding options in rural areas is long overdue. “There aren’t a lot of community locations that [rural] kids can regularly and easily get to during the summer, much less twice a day for breakfast and lunch,” she says. “This is the level of service our rural communities have needed all along.”

In Indiana’s Noble County, where about half of the student population is eligible for free and reduced lunch, Urick says he’s “excited” to once again offer a service that should help ensure that more kids get access to meals after last year’s low participation rates.

This summer, families are able to pick up meals at seven different sites in the area, including a public library and two public housing apartment complexes. When Urick announced the change to the community, he says he was “overwhelmed” by grateful emails and calls. Though many school kitchens face staffing shortages, Urick has had no problem finding workers eager to earn some summer money preparing and delivering meals. But not all rural districts are that fortunate.

Becky Woodman, cafeteria operations manager at the Klamath-Trinity Joint Unified School District in Northern California, says she’s not participating in a grab-and-go or delivery option for summer feeding largely due to staffing. “We’re just not in a position to do that,” she says. “All of our cafeteria staff are 10-month employees.”

During the height of the pandemic, Woodman says, meal delivery to families was a huge challenge. The furthest delivery site was an 80-minute drive down a one-lane road. During the school year, she was able to lean on bus drivers and other district employees to help. “It took a lot of people working really hard and being creative and making things work,” she recalls. Over the summers of 2020 and 2021, though, that meal delivery service paused.

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This summer, she has hired two people to serve breakfast, lunch, snacks, and supper at an elementary school located on the Hoopa Valley Reservation, where the majority of the district’s roughly 1,000 students live. The meals are included in a month-long summer school that typically only attracts about 70 students. She expects “100 percent” of those students will take advantage of the meals. And in a district in which nearly 68 percent of kids qualify for free and reduced lunch, she says many in the community will likely turn to nonprofits and other outreach programs during the summer for help with groceries and meals.

‘A Game Changer’

About a year ago, the Healthy Meals, Healthy Kids Act aimed to improve funding and support for school nutrition and reauthorize federal child nutrition programs (which advocates say is long overdue). It only made it out of the House Committee on Education and Labor. But in December, chairman Robert C. “Bobby” Scott, a Democrat from Virginia, touted one element that made it into the end-of-year spending bill—a permanent Summer EBT program. “I am grateful we will be able to make some progress toward our ultimate goal of eliminating child hunger,” Scott wrote in a statement released at the time.

Summer EBT isn’t a totally new concept. A Pandemic EBT program provided grocery benefits to families when kids missed school meals due to COVID-19 or over the summer months. Children who qualify for free or reduced-price meals were eligible for Pandemic EBT. This is the last summer that program will run, and with the end in sight, Democrats and hunger advocates pushed for a permanent Summer EBT program.

The permanent program, which will begin next summer, drastically reduces benefits. Currently, a family receives up to $450 per child for the summer. Starting next year, the benefit drops to $120 per child, or about $40 per month. Still, Hayes at FRAC says it could make a significant difference for many families. She points to a USDA report assessing a number of states that have piloted a Summer EBT program and found that both a $60 monthly stipend and a $30 monthly stipend successfully reduced food insecurity, though individuals who received $60 per month were able to access healthier food options. “So, we do know that ($40) amount can benefit families,” she says.

Share Our Strength’s Vega says that it’s unfortunate that SNAP’s emergency allotments ended early as part of the spending bill’s negotiations. But, she adds, the two changes slated for summer meals moving forward will be “a game changer” for low-income children.

Anne Marshall-Chalmers is an investigative journalist at The War Horse and a former staff reporter with Civil Eats. A California native, she spent several years working as a reporter, writer, and audio producer in Tennessee and Kentucky before returning to the Bay Area to earn a master’s degree from the U.C. Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism. Her work has appeared in the Los Angeles Times, Atlas Obscura, USA Today, Bay Nature, Earth Island Journal, NPR, CalMatters, Inside Climate News, and Louisville Magazine. She reports on climate change, agriculture, public health, and the spaces where these topics intersect. Read more >

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