Nutritional Education Shouldn’t End with Ring of Bell

June 10, 2010

First Lady Michelle Obama has put ending childhood obesity at the top of the national agenda calling the epidemic one of the greatest threats to Americans' health and the national economy.

First Lady Michelle Obama has put ending childhood obesity at the top of the national agenda calling the epidemic one of the greatest threats to Americans' health and the national economy. With a focus on nutrition in the schools, SupermarketGuru chose to take a more immediate look at what’s happening this summer when children’s nutritional needs tend to fall out of focus.

The non-profit Foundation for Child Development's Child and Youth Well-Being Index projects that the percentage of children living in families with an "insecure" source of food has risen from about 17% in 2007 to nearly 18% in 2010, an increase of 750,000 children. How are these children being fed this summer?

There are a variety of federally funded programs that operate throughout the country, complemented by local charitable drives. The USDA Summer Food Service Program (SFSP) offers breakfast and/or lunch with three allotted portions selected from four food groups to include a meat or meat alternative, fruit or vegetable, bread or grain and skim or one percent milk. What about all the celebrity chef attention and fanfare this summer? Are we skipping a step in guiding the nutritional values of children over the summer months?

Looking across the nation for some hints of innovation, we found some progress. One federal program provides supplemental funds to school districts participating in SFSP for domestic produce during the month of June. Yesterday, the USDA announced it would help both farmers and children with its intention to purchase up to $6 million of Florida farmers’ fresh tomatoes for federal food nutrition assistance programs.

"USDA has been carefully monitoring the situation in Florida in order to determinate how we can help growers get through the very difficult situation caused by the freeze earlier this year," said Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack. "The purchase announced today will provide Florida fresh tomato farmers with some relief, stimulate the economy, and provide high quality, nutritious food to people in need."

In the private sector, companies like ConAgra Foods have developed such projects as a Hunger-Free Summer. The ConAgra project helped build up the budget for the Blue Ridge Area Food Bank to expand its operation. This summer, the food bank predicts it will reach 2,312 children at 25 local sites, a 21 percent increase from last year according to a Food Bank press release.

The grant will also provide part-time food preparation and delivery jobs for 10 teenagers, monthly grocery boxes containing 20 meals for 100 high-need children in Craigsville, and meals for 800 children at Waynesboro Schools and Waynesboro and Staunton chapters of the Boys and Girls Club.

The USDA is conducting two statewide, multi-year demonstration projects in Arkansas and Mississippi to test innovative approaches for increasing participation in the SFSP. Nationwide, an average of 20 percent of children who received free or reduced-price meals at school also received meals in the summer. However, last year in Arkansas only about 10.5 percent of free and reduced-price eligible children received some form of nutrition assistance in the summer. In Mississippi, summer meals reached only about 7.9 percent of eligible children.

"Our efforts to combat hunger cannot end when the school bell rings on the last day of the school year, which is why these Summer Food Service Program demonstration projects will test new and innovative ways to reduce hunger and improve nutrition among children when school is not in session" said Vilsack.

This summer, a project is offering incentives to sponsors that operate SFSP meal sites for a minimum of 40 days in the summer to extend their hours longer. In Mississippi, The Activity Incentive Project will provide funding to local sponsors to plan and implement enrichment or recreational activities at SFSP meal sites. Activities and special events help draw children to meal sites and keep site participation high. 

Congress considers improvements to the Child Nutrition Act, which authorizes USDA's child nutrition programs, including the Summer Food Service Program, every five years. The Obama Administration proposed an additional $10 billion investment over ten years, starting in 2011 that will allow for the improvement of the quality of nutrition assistance programs, increase the number of kids participating in these programs, and ensure schools have the resources they need to make program changes including training for school food service workers, upgraded kitchen equipment, and additional funding for meal reimbursements for schools that are enhancing nutrition and quality.

"The Summer Food Service Program is a vital nutrition resource during the months students are not in school," said Under Secretary of Food, Nutrition and Consumer Services, Kevin Concannon. "We know that there are many children who need nutritious food but don't have access to a program in their area. We need more organizations to sponsor sites, and sponsors need additional resources from the community in order to succeed in reaching children who need meals."

So you want to help end hunger this summer? There are several ways to get involved with the USDA program from becoming a sponsor to opening your doors to feeding families to volunteering. Volunteers can help with basics like transporting food, setting up or cleaning up a site. They also plan and lead educational or recreational activities with the children. Most importantly, help get the word to those in need. Tell others how the Summer Food Service Program helps feed hungry children and discuss how they or their organization can help. The more people know about the issues, the more likely they are to take action to help end hunger or know how to help their own children. Additional information about the Summer Food Service Program can be found