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The challenge of reaching hungry kids when school is out

July 25, 2017 at 6:20 PM EDT
Summertime is supposed to be fun for children and families, but for millions, the absence of free school meals or discounted lunches is a cause for worry. Special correspondent Lisa Stark of Education Week reports from Nebraska on how food banks try to bridge the gap.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: For American children, summer is supposed to be a time of fun and games, but, for many, it is also a time of true need.

During the school year, roughly 22 million children in this country get free and reduced-price lunch. In the summer, those numbers drop dramatically. Just under four million have access to subsidized meals.

There are 50,000 locations providing summer meals, but reaching those who need the food can be a challenge.

WATCH: Hunger a persistent problem for poor Americans as Republicans mull SNAP cuts

Special PBS correspondent Lisa Stark of our partner Education Week traveled to Nebraska to see how one food bank is trying to fill the gap.

LISA STARK: It’s a scorching summer day in Plattsmouth, Nebraska, about 40 minutes south of Omaha, as the food truck lumbers into view. Despite the heat, families are lining up for lunch at what’s called Kids Cruisin’ Kitchen.

BECKY HAM, Parent: They get milk. They get fruit and vegetables. It’s really a nice program.

LISA STARK: Becky Ham and her children rely on the food truck a few times a week.

BECKY HAM: We started doing this about three summers ago when my husband lost his job right before the end of the school year. And we were really panicked about how we were going to make everything work.

LISA STARK: Ham’s husband has a new job, but the budget remains tight. The family still qualifies for free school lunches, and is thankful for the summer help.

BECKY HAM: It’s really helping kids out. It’s really helping families out when they need it.

LISA STARK: Kids Cruisin’ Kitchen was launched six years ago by Omaha’s Food Bank for the Heartland and Salvation Army.

With four food trucks and 10 fixed locations, it serves 1,300 children a day.

Do you get enough to eat at the food truck?

MARLINE AHMED, Kindergartener:  They give us a lot of meals.

LISA STARK: A lot of meals and a lot of food?

MARLINE AHMED: Yes.

LISA STARK: Yes?

Susan Ogborn is the food bank president.

Who are you trying to help? Who’s your target here for the summer meals?

SUSAN OGBORN, President, Food Bank for the Heartland: Primarily, the children of the working poor. They are the folks who won’t tell you that they need help. They are the folks whose children qualify for free or reduced price-lunches.

LISA STARK: Preparing these meals begins early in the morning in an industrial kitchen run by an Omaha area school district. They make meals for Kids Cruisin’ Kitchen and other summer meal programs.

JACKIE CAMBRIDGE, Contract Meal Services, Westside Community Schools: We do about 3,000 meals a day during the summer.

LISA STARK: In less than three hours on this morning, corn dogs are cooked, bananas packed, chocolate milk readied, sack lunches bagged, chicken patties, fruit and veggies prepped for later in the week.

JACKIE CAMBRIDGE: It’s the five food groups. It’s grains, meat, fruit, vegetables, milk.

LISA STARK: Meals are paid for by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, $3.83 each, and must meet government nutrition standards, which are a bit looser in the summer.

Jackie Cambridge manages this summer meal service.

JACKIE CAMBRIDGE: There’s always a whew when we get it out the door. And then we just hope that it’s getting to kids in need, and that they’re enjoying it, and we do it all again the next day.

LISA STARK: Shortly after 9:00 a.m., the Kids Cruisin’ Kitchen truck pulls up to load its food, hot meals to go. The truck makes four stops each weekday during most of the summer break.

After that first stop in Plattsmouth, it’s off to a public library, followed by a public housing project, then onto an affordable housing development, areas where more than half of children quality for free and reduced-price lunch, although anyone is welcome.

CHILD: You got corn dogs today? Bananas.

LISA STARK: Summer lunches are an outgrowth of subsidized school lunches, which expanded in the 1960s.

NARRATOR: A good lunch provides from a third to one-half of the student’s daily needs.

LISA STARK: As part of President Lyndon Johnson’s war on poverty.

LYNDON JOHNSON, Former President of the United States: Children just must not go hungry.

LISA STARK: The programs have grown enormously. Today, 85 percent of all breakfasts served at schools and 73 percent of school lunches are subsidized by the USDA; 12 million students depend on breakfast, 22 million on lunch. Nationwide, nearly 20 percent of children under age 18 live in poverty. That’s 14.5 million children.

LAURA HATCH, Director of National Partnerships, No Kid Hungry: Sometimes, schools are providing the only meals that kids get during the week.

LISA STARK: Laura Hatch is With No Kid Hungry, a national advocacy group trying to reduce childhood hunger. She says school meals make a big difference.

LAURA HATCH: We know that kids that eat breakfast do better on math tests. We know that serving breakfast as part of the school day can actually keep kids in their seat and lessen absenteeism.

LISA STARK: Serving school meals is easier. Students are all in one place. Summer meals are tougher. The food has to get to where the children are.

To make it work, the food bank hires 10 temporary staffers, and relies on 200 volunteers from Mutual of Omaha.

This is Gary Hering’s third year helping out. He understands hunger.

GARY HERING, Volunteer, Mutual Omaha: There were times when, as a family, I know we struggled, and we’d go visit relatives just to eat, you know, have food every day.

LISA STARK: Do you think that’s true for some of these kids? Or what do you think?

GARY HERING: You bet. That’s the best part about it today, that these kids aren’t going to be hungry at lunch.

LISA STARK: Despite all this effort by the food bank and others, Nebraska ranks near the bottom of all 50 states when it comes to summer meals. For every 100 children who depend on the school lunch program, only eight are getting help during the summer.

That’s according to the Food Research and Action Center, which found that, last year, nationwide, that gap between filling the need during the school year and the summer got wider.

It’s especially difficult to reach children in rural areas. They are spread out, and USDA rules require all summer meals to be served and eaten in one place at one time.

WOMAN: You guys going to eat it over here today, OK?

LISA STARK: Regulars, like Michelle Brown and her sisters, are well aware of the rules.

CHILD: You just have to, like, eat here, and you have to come on time.

LISA STARK: USDA has a pilot program in seven states and two tribal areas to help families in need during the summer by temporarily increasing food stamps benefits.

Advocates would like this program offered more widely.

Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue, who recently visited a summer meal site in Washington, D.C., says he’s open to the idea.

SONNY PERDUE, U.S. Agriculture Secretary: I don’t think any of us want to fast over the summer, so just because school stops doesn’t mean that the needs for good, nutritious, healthy food and a good environment doesn’t stop.

LISA STARK: The food bank’s Susan Ogborn is eager to see regulations relaxed to make it easier to expand summer meals.

SUSAN OGBORN, President, Food Bank for the Heartland: The problem is, children are hungry every day. And so we hope that Secretary Perdue and the rest of his team at USDA get their rules and regulations figured out pretty quickly.

LISA STARK: For now, the food bank will continue to roll along with its current program, hoping one day to reach many more children, but committed to the mostly satisfied customers it already has.

What do you think about the food truck?

ALUAL AKUEI, Third Grader: I like it, but I would love it if they added donuts.

LISA STARK: Maybe next summer.

For the PBS NewsHour and Education Week, I’m Lisa Stark in Omaha, Nebraska.

JUDY WOODRUFF: We love donuts, too.

Editor’s Note: We mistakenly referred to the Food Research and Action Center as the Food Research and Action Network. A correction has been made in the transcript.

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