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Innovative Ideas to Address Summer Hunger Gap

August 4, 2016

School being out for summer elicits celebration for those who bid a brief farewell to homework and welcome summer camps and family vacations. Many children, though, face the season with a sense of dread. Instead of wondering what to pack, their main concern is where they will get their next meal.

California faces an enormous problem. The Golden State  has the highest poverty rate in the nation, after adjusting for the cost of living[1]. As a result, over 2.3 million children experience food insecurity[2]. The dilemma only worsens when school is not in session. Last year 85% of California’s low-income students fell into the summer nutrition gap. More than 1.7 million children and youth who benefited from federally funded free or reduced-price (FRP) lunches during the school year missed out on similar lunches during the summer[3].

Image by CA Food Policy Advocates

The Summer Meals Program, also known Summer Food Service Program (SFSP), is federally funded and state administered. Children 18 years and younger can receive a free meal and snacks; no pre-registration required. This program extends to persons with disabilities, over age 18, who participate in school programs for people who are mentally or physically disabled.[4] But this program is not an equitable solution for every California community, as there can be multiple barriers to participation. 

With issues like lack of public transportation, greater distances to sites, and extreme heat, rural communities often endure even higher rates of children missing necessary nourishment. Our rural member food banks and their community partners are doing everything in their power to address this hunger gap with a large serving of grit and innovation. 

Going the Distance for Summer Lunch in Humboldt County

Food for People in Humboldt County operates the Children’s Summer Lunch Program, providing a free sack lunch to low-income children [during the week] in the summer months. With a large rural community to serve, the program reaches sites as far as 200 miles away from each other. Although the food bank hires a Summer Lunch Driver for the program, they can’t reach every site – and that’s where UPS jumps in to help fill the gap. UPS drivers put coolers full of lunches on their trucks for communities the food bank’s driver cannot get to. In addition to UPS, the Humboldt Transit Authority does the same thing with a number of their busses, delivering lunch to hungry children. In 2015 Food for People provided nearly 15,000 lunches at 21 sites throughout the county. Heidi McHugh of Food for People explains that 53.3% of all Humboldt County school children qualify for free or reduced price lunch during the school year, yet despite all of the food bank’s effort—they only reach about 500 children per day, or around 2% of those receiving free and reduced lunch at school. She went on to explain that the areas hungry children would benefit from Summer EBT.

Local Partnership Feeds Hungry Kids in Tuolumne County

In Tuolumne county 51.9% or 3,235 students qualify for Free and Reduced Price Meals, and in Amador County 45%, or 1,895 children qualify for this program[5]. Once a week, the  Amador-Tuolumne Community Action Agency Food Bank (ATCAA) partners with local libraries and rec centers to hold a summer grocery pick-up day.With no federal support from the Summer Lunch Program funds in order to have more flexibility with distribution of product, ATCAA food bank’s summer food program is augmented by local food purveyors and the Farm to Family program. Additionally, ATCAA purchases some of the more expensive items such as cereal, peanut butter, tuna and shelf stable milk. In the beginning of the summer, the program had 70 pre-enrolled children. Midsummer the participation has jumped to over 100. The target is 200-300 children, only a fraction of the overall need in Tuolumne County.[6]

Innovation by the Ocean in San Luis Obispo County

In San Luis Obispo County, the rural area makes Summer Lunch Programs very difficult. There is a huge transportation barrier, and in many cases the rules to qualify a site (at least 40%[7]) is prohibitive to the school district’s makeup. San Luis Obispo County has communities with large low-income housing complexes that do not qualify because they are too near higher-income neighborhoods that disqualify the area for Summer Lunch services. To get around these barriers, The Food Banks Coalition of SLO scaled back their participation in the state-funded Summer Lunch Program and implemented their own summer feeding programs with private funding. The programs include a 21-site Children’s Farmer’s Markets and a 44-site Summer Breakfast Bag program that provides one month of healthy breakfast meals in a bag, delivered to kids in low income areas. The bag has a variety of easy-to-prepare, healthy breakfast foods. Keeping in mind that many low-income families have an older child who looks after their younger siblings, the food bank makes sure to include foods that kids can prepare safely. The Summer Breakfast Bag Program serves many families in the most rural parts of the county, some 45 miles from the nearest grocery store. 

Beating the Heat in Riverside County

FIND Food Bank in the Coachella Valley is home to 72,000 students, more than 81% of whom qualify for free and reduced lunch during the school year. That’s 54,000 children receiving both breakfast and lunch.[8] However, during the summer, the majority of these children have no way to access these meals because they have no way to get to a congregate feeding site. FIND is attempting to combat the transportation barrier with a weekday lunchtime mobile food pantry and additional food bank-hosted family farmer’s markets twice a month. The goal is to reach 6,000 children, but the overall need is over seven times the food banks’ capacity. FIND reports that only 5-7,000 area children receive Summer Lunch Program meals during the summer. That means more than 45,000 children in the Coachella Valley aren’t getting the same healthy meals they do during the school year. To complicate matters, children are walking a mile or more in triple digit heat. Executive Director Lisa Huston explains, how the regional climate does not pair well with the communal feeding requirements due to extreme heat adding a serious public safety concern to summer hunger that food banks must take into consideration. 


Rural Food Bank

Free & Reduced Lunch Participation Rate

Children Served by Summer Feeding Programs

Summer Hunger Gap

Food for People



9,849 children

Amador-Tuolumne Community Action Agency Food Bank

AC: 1,895

TC: 3,235


5,030 children

The Food Banks Coalition of SLO



10,081 children


53,975 [9]


45,000 children

Despite all of these incredible efforts, hungry children are still not getting the food they need over the summer.  California’s children deserve good nutrition year round. 

As FIND’s executive director Lisa Houston commented: “...At the end of the day, why is one in five Americans hungry? Because the other four have chosen to ignore the situation.”

Want to help? Read on.

How to Help Decrease the Hunger Gap

1) Please consider signing on to the #StopTheBlock opposition letter and share with your networks! 

 2) Remember to call and request site visits during August recess with your Congressional representatives. This is an important opportunity for education and advocacy

 3) Begin your plate campaigns with Summer Lunch Program sites – CAFB will support your efforts by supplying and shipping the materials needed for a successful campaign.

CAFB Advocacy Manager Sarah Palmer DeFrank


[1] U.S. Census Bureau. Supplemental Poverty Measure

[2] USDA. Food Insecurity

[3] CFPA. School’s Out, Who Ate

[4]  Summer Food Service Program. FAQ

[5] ED Data, County Profiles.

[8] Desert Sun. July 2015

[9] Palm Springs Unified, Desert sands Unified and Coachella Unified

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