How Mississippi plans to stop child hunger during the summer

Mississippi launched its summer meal program Thursday to help keep students fed, even after school is dismissed.

Hans Pennink/AP
A chicken salad school lunch, prepared under federal guidelines, sits on display at the cafeteria at Draper Middle School in Rotterdam, N.Y.

When most students think about summer vacation, many think about sleeping in late, playing at the pool, or working at a summer job.

But for thousands of students in Mississippi, summer vacation also brings food insecurity with the absence of free or subsidized school lunches. One third of all Mississippi children live in homes with limited access to sufficient quantities of nutritious food, according to the US Department of Agriculture. 

To alleviate these fears, officials from the USDA, the US Department of Housing and Urban Development, and Magnolia Health launched the USDA's summer meal program on Thursday to supply almost three million free meals to needy Mississippi school children during school recess. Officials are excited about this year's program, which will provide 10 percent more meals than last year.

"The US Department of Agriculture's summer food service program will provide nearly 41,000 meals a day in the state," the Associated Press reported. "That's up to two meals a day per child in some locations, for about 2.8 million meals throughout the summer." 

Sponsors donate the food through a federal reimbursement system and the meals are distributed in various public areas such as parks, religious centers, low-income housing centers, and schools.

And it's not just Mississippi.

Through the USDA's Summer Food Service Program, also known as the Summer Meals Program, 200 million free meals will be delivered to students in need this summer.

"Children need good nutrition all year long. When school lets out, millions of low-income children no longer have access to a healthy school breakfast or lunch," USDA Food and Nutrition Service Regional Administrator Robin Bailey said in a press release. "USDA's summer meal programs help fill the gap for children who depend on free and reduced-price meals when they are in school." 

But the program has one central, surprising difficulty: eligible children are not signing up. 

"Historically, summer meals served through the Summer Food Service Program (SFSP) and the National School Lunch Program (NSLP) reach only about 17 percent of the 21 million children receiving free or reduced price lunches during the school year," explains the USDA.

Although 3.2 million children participated in SFSP on an average day in July 2014, only one in six children who receive free or reduced-price meals during the school year continue to receive meals during the summer. The USDA cites a number of reasons behind the low participation rates, primarily inaccessibility. Many eligible families don’t know important details about SNSP, such as when or how meals or distributed.

"There is no reason for a child in America to go hungry, but it is a sad reality for many kids in Mississippi," Jerrie Magruder, the Mississippi field office director for HUD, said in a press release. 

To better extend the school year aid programs into summer months, the USDA's Food and Nutrition Service formed State Technical Assistance Teams to identify states with especially low participation. And the program has made a difference: in 2013 the FNS served seven million additional meals over 2012, and then an additional 10 million meals in 2014 over 2013.

In 2015, Mississippi was one of the top 10 worst performing states in the National School Lunch Program, tied with Nevada for number 46. But the state is also showing improvement. The same year, Mississippi was one of seven states to see SFSP participation grow by 20 percent or more.  

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