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Latest Report – Free Summer Meals Help Reduce Hunger and are Crucial During COVID-19

FRAC’s Hunger Doesn’t Take a Vacation: Summer Nutrition Status Report finds that 2.8 million children received summer lunch on an average weekday in July 2019, reaching only one child for every 7 low-income children who participated in school lunch during the 2018-2019 school year.

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When school lets out, millions of low-income children lose access to the school breakfasts, lunches and afterschool snacks and meals they receive during the regular school year. The Summer Nutrition Programs help fill this gap by providing free meals and snacks to children who might otherwise go hungry.

The program is administered at the federal level by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), and in each state through the department of education, agriculture, or health. To find out the agency that administers the program in your state, check USDA’s list of state administering agencies.

Quick Facts

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  • Summer Meals During COVID-19
    USDA has issued many temporary flexibilities through nationwide waivers to ensure children are able to receive summer meals while maintaining social distancing, such as allowing meals to be taken home, allowing parents or guardians to pick up meals if allowed by the state, and allowing multiple days’ worth of meals to be distributed at one time.

  • Celebrating 50 Years of Summer Nutrition Programs

    A History of the Summer Nutrition Programs

    The Food Research & Action Center (FRAC) turns 50 this year, and throughout its history, FRAC has worked to expand the reach of the Summer Nutrition Programs through research, advocacy, outreach, and training efforts. Through the years, Congress has made a number of cuts to the Summer Nutrition Programs that have limited access to summer meals. Much of FRAC’s advocacy work has focused on opposing and reversing many of those legislative changes. Below are major milestones in the history of the Summer Nutrition Programs and FRAC’s role in supporting them.

    1975 — The Summer Food Service Program (SFSP) was created as a separate program through P.L. 94-105, after being piloted along with child care feeding under the Special Food Service Program for Children in 1968.

    1981 — The Omnibus Budget Reconciliation Act of 1981 made significant cuts to the child nutrition programs that reduced access to summer meals, including increasing the percentage of children required to be lowincome (defined as being eligible for free or reduced-price school lunch) for an area to be eligible to have a summer meal site from one-third to one-half, and prohibiting private nonprofit organizations (that were not schools or camps) from sponsoring SFSP. These changes significantly reduced the number of communities that could participate and the number of sponsors that could operate SFSP; participation dropped by 26 percent from 1981 to 1982: from 1.9 million children participating in July 1981 to less than 1.4 million children in July 1982.

    1989 — The Child Nutrition and WIC Reauthorization Act of 1989 (P.L. 101-147) allowed private nonprofit organization sponsors (in addition to schools and camps) to again sponsor SFSP, but required them to operate under additional rules, such as limiting the number of sites and children that they could serve.

    1993 — FRAC released its first Hunger Doesn’t Take a Vacation: Summer Nutrition Status report, which analyzed participation in the Summer Nutrition Programs both at the national and state level.

    1994 — Healthy Meals for Healthy Americans Act (P.L. Law 103-448) provided startup and expansion grants, and eased some of the administrative requirements of private nonprofit sponsors. The Act also allowed SFSP to provide meals during emergency school closures, which has allowed the Summer Nutrition Programs to respond to COVID-19.

    1996 — The Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act of 1996 (P.L. 104-193) made a major cut in SFSP reimbursements and eliminated SFSP startup and expansion grants.

    1998 — The William F. Goodling Child Nutrition Reauthorization Act of 1998 (P.L. 105-336) modified the restrictions on participation by private nonprofit organizations, which included increasing the number of sites they could sponsor from five to 25.

    2001 — FRAC worked with Senator Lugar (R-IN) to pilot the Simplified Summer Food rules in 13 states and Puerto Rico through the Consolidated Appropriations Act of 2001 (P.L. 106-554). The pilot eliminated “cost-based accounting” for public sponsors, which allowed those sponsors to receive the full reimbursement and reduced administrative work for sponsors and State child nutrition agencies.

    2004 — FRAC’s advocacy was critical to the summer investments in the Child Nutrition Reauthorization of 2004 (P.L. 108-265), which included expanding the Simplified Summer Food rules to six additional states and including private nonprofit sponsors; codifying the Seamless Summer Option available through the National School Lunch Program (which had been available through a waiver process); providing funding for rural transportation grants; and piloting lowering the area eligibility threshold from 50 to 40 percent in rural areas in Pennsylvania (which resulted in a 15 percent increase in rural summer food sites).

    2005 — Washington state passed legislation that requires all school districts operating a summer program to operate SFSP if at least 50 percent of their students are eligible for free and reduced-price meals. Additional states soon followed with FRAC’s support and technical assistance.

    2007 — The Consolidated Appropriations Act of 2008 (P.L. 110-161) extended the Simplified Summer Food rules to all sponsors in all states.

    2008 — FRAC issued the Summer Food Standards of Excellence to challenge summer food sponsors to improve the nutritional quality and appeal of summer meals.

    2009 — FRAC’s research and lobbying were critical to the dedication of $85 million for demonstration projects to develop and test methods of providing access to food for low-income children in urban and rural areas during the summer months through the Agriculture Appropriations Act (P.L. 111-80). Summer EBT — one of the most promising demonstration projects — provided an EBT card to families whose children are eligible for free or reduced-price school meals to purchase food at retailers. Evaluations found that Summer EBT reduces food insecurity and improves nutrition, and Congress has continued to invest in Summer EBT through annual appropriation bills.

    2010 — The Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act removed all special requirements for private nonprofit summer food sponsors.

    2012 — FRAC partnered with the National League of Cities to create the Cities Combatting Hunger (CHAMPS) initiative in order to work with cities to increase participation in summer and afterschool meals. In its first seven years, this work helped 77 cities feed over 152,000 children more than 12.5 million meals.

    2013 — FRAC supported the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s summer meals target state initiative by providing trainings and additional support in states selected for increased technical assistance. This initiative continued until 2017.

    2014 — FRAC partnered with the YMCA of the USA to provide summer meals support alongside grant funding to thousands of eligible, non-participating YMCAs across the country.

    2019 — An audit of the Summer Food Service Program by the Office of the Inspector General resulted in the rescission of several key nationwide summer food program waivers. FRAC worked to support state agencies and sponsors in their efforts to reinstate the waivers.

    2020 — COVID-19 results in the closure of schools and early implementation of the Summer Nutrition Programs in communities across the country. FRAC assists schools and community-based sponsors in sustaining meal programs throughout summer.

  • Benefits of the Summer Nutrition Programs
    The Summer Nutrition Programs provide free meals and snacks to children 18 and under at sites in low-income communities or that serve primarily low-income children. Most summer meal sites provide educational, enrichment or recreational activities that keep children learning, active and safe when school is not in session. These programs contribute to children’s healthy growth and development by providing them with nutritious meals and snacks over the summer months, a time when children can be more at risk for hunger and weight gain.
  • How the Summer Nutrition Programs Work
    Two federal nutrition programs exist to feed children during the summer months – the Summer Food Service Program (SFSP) and the National School Lunch Program (NSLP). Local governments, school districts, and private nonprofits can sponsor summer meal sites, which may be located at schools, parks, recreation centers, housing complexes, Indian reservations, YMCAs, Boys and Girls Clubs, houses of worship, camps, summer school, and other places where children congregate. Sponsors receive a reimbursement for each eligible meal and snack served at meal sites. To learn more, visit the Summer Nutrition FAQ page.
  • Strategies to Expand the Summer Nutrition Programs
    Comprehensive outreach, improved public policies, and expanded partnerships with national, state, and local stakeholders are key strategies to increasing participation in the Summer Nutrition Programs. Use these guides and resources, plus FRAC’s Summer Food Mapper, to  successfully prepare, promote, and execute the Summer Nutrition Programs.
  • Serving High Quality Summer Meals/Nutrition Guidelines
    All meals served through the Summer Nutrition Programs must meet the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s nutritional guidelines.

    For Summer Food, they include all of the following:

    • 1 serving of milk
    • 2 servings of fruits and/or vegetables
    • 1 serving of grains
    • 1 serving of protein

    A summer breakfast can be as simple as a muffin, watermelon slice and a carton of low-fat milk. Lunch can be as simple as vegetable pasta, a low-fat yogurt cup, watermelon and a carton of low-fat milk. The state child nutrition agency can provide summer sponsors with additional information about the nutrition guidelines and help them plan menus that meet the USDA requirements.

    Still, there are opportunities to build upon the standards. When sites serve nutritious and appealing meals and snacks, it helps attract children and increases the likelihood that they consistently participate.

    Find out about additional steps sponsors can take to build high quality summer meal sites; improve vended meals and vendor relations; and use more local, fresh foods.

  • Serving Summer Meals in Rural Areas
    The Summer Nutrition Programs can fill the hunger gap that exists during summer break for millions of low-income children in rural communities. Pairing summer meals with summer programs addresses the loss in learning that too many low-income children experience over the summer months. Learn more in our fact sheet: Rural Hunger in America: Summer Meals.
  • State Summer Legislation
    States have passed a variety of types of legislation to increase summer meals participation, such as allocating funds to supplement the federal reimbursement that sponsors receive from USDA, and passing legislation that requires low-income schools provide meals during the summer months. Find out more.

Learn More:

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Find out How to Prepare, Promote, and Execute Summer Nutrition Programs
Comprehensive outreach, improved policies, and expanded partnerships with national, state, and local stakeholders are key strategies to increasing participation in the Summer Nutrition Programs. Check out these resources:

Success Story

SFSP in New Jersey: State Legislation Helps Increase Summer Meal Participation
Hunger Free New Jersey worked with partners across the state to advocate for, and ultimately enact, state legislation requiring high-poverty schools to provide meals through the Summer Food Service Program. The state ranked 6th nationally, and healthcare facility piloted a site last summer, mirroring the national trend of more hospitals and healthcare providers stepping up as summer meals champions. Find out more…