Many Americans have heard of the National School Lunch Program. It is one of the most successful ways we fight childhood hunger, both here in Arizona and across the U.S. Through the program, 461,802 Arizona children received free- or reduced-price lunch during the 2013-14 school year; across the country, 19.5 million students received healthy meals.
But what happens in late May or early June when the school year ends? For many children, the meals end, and kids who find themselves in households without enough to eat go without. And these children pay a high price for missed meals. Hunger increases children’s risk for illness, obesity and other health problems, and is one of the most severe obstacles for learning, even at a time when a person’s brain is rapidly developing.
Simply put, when children are hungry, they struggle to learn. When they struggle to learn, they struggle in life. When they struggle in life, it hurts us all. According to a report by the Center for American Progress and Brandeis University, hunger costs our nation at least $167.5 billion due to the combination of lost economic productivity per year, more expensive public education because of the rising costs of poor education outcomes, avoidable health care costs, and the cost of charity to keep families fed.
June 2 through 8 marked Summer Meals Awareness Week, which is a good opportunity for us to examine what we are doing to feed children in the summer and what we could do better. Because the truth is, there is both good news and bad news on this front.
The good news is that we are feeding more children through effective, nutritious, federally-assisted summer meals programs than ever before. Here in Arizona, for example, 68,743 children participated in the summer meals program on average each day last summer, according to Hunger Doesn’t Take a Vacation, a new report issued by the nonpartisan Food Research and Action Center. That marked a 14 percent increase from the 60,303 kids who participated, on average, during the previous summer.
That’s the good news. The bad news is that the 68,743 children who received healthy meals last summer represented only about 15 percent of the 461,000 Arizona children who participate in the National School Lunch Program.
In other words: In the summer, we’re not doing well enough when it comes to making sure that every child has enough to eat. And that’s true not just in Arizona but all across the country, where one in every five children is in danger of going to bed hungry and 16 million children are in food-insecure households.
When children have enough to eat, everyone wins. As any parent knows, well-fed kids are less disruptive, whether it’s on the playground or in the classroom. And kids grow up better-nourished, our economy is stronger because it is fueled by a smart, educated, healthy workforce; and taxpayers are happy because they will find themselves spending less money on all of the problems caused when kids go hungry.
And that should provide us all with food for thought.
Arizona families can find out more about a summer food program near them by visiting www.azsummerfood.gov.
• Kimberley Pope is organizer of the Arizona Fair Share Education Fund and Angie Rodgers is president and chief executive officer of the Association of Arizona Food Banks.