Programs that provide free meals for children during the summer months when school has let out are popping up all across the United States. And for good reason, too! These often carry over from programs that provide meals for children for weekends and extended holiday breaks.
A study shows that an average 16 million American kids struggle with hunger. This breaks down to 1 in 5 children being hungry at some point every single year. Many of the families involved in hunger studies have mentioned they have to choose bills, such as rent and electricity, over food – resulting in empty cabinets.
A recent interview showed that 3 out of 4 teachers notice hunger in their own classrooms each year. This not only means that the child is not nourished, but that he or she doesn’t learn as well as a nourished child would. A huge number of families who struggle to put food on their tables do not qualify for any sort of public assistance and therefore struggle even more.
Many school districts have the free breakfast and lunch programs, but what happens after breakfast and lunch? Organizations like No Kid Hungry offers summer meals for children and some have even started meal delivery services because they found that students who were hungry had no means to make it to meal sites when school was not in session due to varying issues such as parental work schedules.
A rising issue with local programs is that the meals while free are lacking seriously in nutrition. The programs are mostly created on public donations and are non-profit and do what they can, but the funds often lack what is needed for real nutrition. We have seen locally that often these meals are created with kid-friendly foods in mind but also things that children can prepare on their own due to the fact that many kids are left alone for a great part of the summer. Easy to make macaroni and cheese, pre-packaged ready to eat pasta and other foods packed with sodium and other not-so-great ingredients fill these bags and while they are filling, the nutrition is still lacking.
A Game Changing Program in Pennsylvania
Fresh Connect in Bucks County, PA is offering fresh (yes you read that right) foods to kids year round.
“It may be cheaper to get pasta, dry goods, and canned goods, but nutritious fruits and vegetables are a lot more expensive and people will do without if they can’t afford them. So we want to make sure that they have those available to them. They can get a selection here every single week throughout the year,” said Eileen Albillar with Bucks County Opportunity Council.
The idea of this program is set up like a farmer’s market where reliable and much needed foods are set up for 57,000 residents 32% of which are children. Volunteers show up at the same times each week and unload trucks and set this farm stand up, deliver the produce to the needy citizens and then clean everything up at the end.
A huge perk of this amazing program is that it is open year-round, rain or shine as long as the temperatures outdoors are over 32 degrees. There is a volunteer sign-up sheet online and the slots fill up so fast with people wanting to help their community which really brings out the team spirit in this great little town.
The number of farms participating in this amazing program are great and while this program is great for the community it is also great for the farmer who sees less waste.
Cut the Junk
Programs, like Fresh Connect, are helping families cut out the junk foods that are often more affordable and providing them with great in-season produce. It is estimated that 12% of a child’s diet consists of junk food. This number is staggering when thinking about how much sugar that kids are consuming among the other junk foods on the market, especially when thinking that the number is higher with those who can’t afford to buy more nutritious foods.
Fresh Connect and other programs around the country are helping children to cut out the junk. There are often programs in communities that teach people how to safely handle and prepare nutritious meals. These programs are great for people who do not otherwise know how to handle fresh foods and they can also limit the number of cases of salmonella poisoning and other food borne illnesses. The classes are often free and come with the perks of getting a certificate at the end that can allow the attendees the ability to prepare foods for groups of people while being safe at the same time. This certificate is often needed for certain jobs as well, so this can help with employment.
How Can You Help
Check your local newspapers and social media forums for ways you can volunteer to help feed hungry children in your area. There are so many opportunities that arise and in writing this article I found a great way to help in my own community through a program that I was not aware existed. There are several ways to volunteer that even allow children to help such as just simply helping to unload trucks and packing bags of weekend/summer meals for local children in need and manning pick-up stations for those meals.
If you are in need of summer or weekend meals be sure to check with your local school district as many are setting up programs throughout the summer for free children’s meals at lunch time and often sending home supplemental meals throughout the school year as well.
It truly does take a village to raise children and working together we can all help others to provide a means by which parents can know their children are fed when they can’t necessarily do so themselves. Many of these programs allow participants to volunteer as well, so while you may not be able to contribute financially, you can give some time and feel as if you are giving back to the programs helping your family. A true community feeling!
By: Samantha Cooper, Contributing Writer (Non-Lawyer)