How Schools Help Kids Beat Hunger All Summer

By: Sherry Coleman Collins, MS, RDN, LD

For many of us, summertime means swimming pools and road trips, popsicles and ice cream, and all the fun. But for children who depend on school feeding programs, it can also mean more food insecurity. It can mean hunger. The weeks between school years can be a time when families who struggle to put food on the table have an even harder time ensuring that children’s nutritional needs are met. According to HealthyPeople2020.gov, more than 17 million households in the U.S. struggled with food insecurity in 2014.

Starting in 1968, USDA began to offer some assistance to help meet the needs of hungry children in areas of poorer economic conditions with a three-year pilot program. Since then, the Summer Food Service Feeding Program has grown and expanded to reach more children and offer more sites. In fact, in 2018, more than 1.5 million meals and snacks were served to children when school was not in session, according to the USDA.

One school nutrition leader making a difference in this area is Donna Martin, registered dietitian nutritionist and director of school nutrition in Burke County, Georgia. According to statistics from Feeding America, more than 28% of the children in Burke County are food insecure. Martin is adamant the children in her district need this program. “Hunger doesn’t end when the summer starts.” To her, it’s not just about physical hunger, but it’s also about academics. Says Martin, “In order to keep academic learning continuing during the summer, we have to fuel those minds. [With the summer feeding program] at least we know they get one healthy nutritious meal per day.”

Children from birth through 18 years old can participate in the nationwide summer feeding program. In Burke County, they have 15 buses that deliver meals all over her county, making 160 stops. They serve meals in libraries, apartment complexes, neighborhoods and even in empty lots and children may walk as far as ½ a mile to board the air-conditioned buses in the heat of summer. She says they feed between 1,200-1,500 children every day. These kids are hungry and Martin and her team are dedicated to feeding them nutritious, safe, and delicious meals.

In her program, she says they serve peanut butter sandwiches every week. “Our kids absolutely love it!” Her staff makes peanut butter and honey or apple jelly sandwiches on whole wheat bread and it’s one of the favorite meals for the kids in her community. As for Martin, she says she loves that its shelf stable, since food safety in the heat of south Georgia summers is a real concern.

I asked Martin about managing food allergies in her summer program. She told me that they don’t have many food allergies in her district. But, she said, “the bus drivers know their kids.” And they always provide alternative foods on the bus for when the children have allergies, such as to milk or peanut, and can’t have the food offered.

To learn more about Burke County Schools’ child nutrition program, visit their website or reach out to Donna Martin directly at dmartin@burke.k12.ga.us. She’s proud of her program and always generous to share their success. Learn more about the nationwide Summer Food Service Program at the USDA website.

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