Nearly 1 in 4 Louisiana children live in homes struggling to put food on the table throughout the year. These children and families rely on food banks to help make ends meet. More important are the programs that provide meals to children throughout the year. Several of these programs for school age children are critical for Louisianans. The school lunch program, after-school meal program, and summer food programs are three resources to help meet the food needs of children so that they may learn and grow to become healthy, productive Louisiana citizens.
Right now, Congress is in the middle of reauthorizing these programs. Louisiana’s food banks work alongside schools and other charities to offer meals for children during out of school times. Unfortunately, we were only able to reach a fraction of those in need. Over 411,000 low-income children in Louisiana receive lunch assistance during the school year, but just 10 percent will access feeding programs during the summer. Research has found that children consume up to 50 percent of their total daily calories at school during the school year. Many of our low-income families struggle to fill that gap. Without that food during hot summer days, we know that summer is the hungriest time of the year for low-income children. Many of our low-income families struggle to fill that gap. Without that food during hot summer days, we know that summer is the hungriest time of the year for low-income children.
Louisiana’s Food Banks and other charities are doing our part to try to close the summer hunger gap by operating summer feeding programs in our communities. But there is no way we will be able to reach the 89 percent of kids not being served without greater flexibility in how we reach kids in the summer months with greater flexibility in how we reach those kids. We need to continue strong national standards and accountability while providing new program models that local communities can tailor to best meet their circumstances.
For example, program regulations dictate that we can only feed children if they consume a meal at the program site. We do our best to build sites in areas of concentrated need and, where possible, provide children with a space not just to eat, but to play and learn. But we can’t open a site down the street from every needy family, particularly in rural Louisiana. Families may have to travel long distances to reach the nearest program, and the roundtrip fuel cost may outweigh the cost of the lunch their child receives. If a program is only open in the morning and mom works the early shift, her kids are out of luck if the site is beyond a safe walking distance from their home.
The Hunger Free Summer for Kids Act which was introduced in the Senate this month, would enable communities to do far more to protect Louisiana’s children from hunger. The legislation provides alternate models for delivery in communities where the current summer feeding program model is not eligible or unable to reach the children in need. Through two, proven methods, tested by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, and found to serve children in hard-to-reach communities, decrease child hunger, and increase nutrition intake of whole grains, fruits and vegetable, and dairy.
Congress has a unique opportunity to close the summer hunger gap when they rewrite child nutrition programs this year. Louisiana’s food banks hope you will join us in making the summer hunger gap the top priority for our congressional delegation. We encourage our Senators to support the Hunger Free Summer for Kids Act of 2015 and call on the Senate Agriculture Committee to include this legislation in this year’s child nutrition bill.