(BPT) - When summer comes along, kids and teens have plenty to look forward to: pool time, sports camp, three months of freedom and no homework. But some low-income kids might actually be looking forward to their next meal.
During the school year, more than 20 million low-income children receive free or reduced-price meals through the National School Lunch Program, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). Research shows children without proper nourishment do poorly in school and have lower academic achievement, leading many organizations to help keep students fueled during and after the school day.
Seventh grader R.J. is one student who benefits from these free meals. With eight young siblings at home, R.J.'s mom has difficulty keeping food on the table. R.J. visits the YMCA in Rapid City, South Dakota, to enjoy a healthy, nutritious meal after school.
Once the last bell rings and the school year comes to a close, R.J. loses access to the free or reduced-price meals on which he relies during the school year. He's not alone. In fact, only 12 percent of these kids and teens have access to free summertime meals and snacks through the USDA's Summer Food Service Program.
'The benefits of healthy and reliable meals don't start and end with the school year,' says Stacey McDaniel, technical advisor, Food and Nutrition Support Program at the YMCA of the USA. 'Without proper nourishment in the summer, kids risk falling into a summertime slump and returning to school in the fall at a disadvantage compared to their classmates.'
In order to combat hunger and fill this summertime gap, community organizations step up to make sure young people in underserved areas have what they need to thrive. Community leaders work with teachers from local schools to identify which kids and teens need assistance and educate them on the programs available in their neighborhood.
One established option is the Y's Summer Food Program, supported by the Walmart Foundation. Now in its fifth year, the program serves kids ages 18 and under nutritious meals, like turkey sandwiches with green beans and mixed fruit cocktail and snacks. The program also includes activities to help them keep their bodies and minds active.
Last summer, the free program served children at 1,100 Y sites across the country. This summer, the reach will be even greater as the program expands to twice as many locations. This year, the Y anticipates serving 4.75 million meals and snacks to more than 200,000 kids across the country.
Not every child has access to transportation to get to and from a Y site every day. The Y removes this barrier by hosting the Summer Food Program at parks and low-income apartment complexes, too.
Other organizations and nonprofits take a similar route to bring nutritious food straight to those in need by distributing meals in parks where kids gather -- or via food trucks. Fueling up on free, healthy meals and fresh produce also promotes the values of healthy eating, combatting concerns about childhood obesity.
'Thanks to these programs, kids don't need to worry about finding their next meal and can instead simply enjoy being kids,' McDaniel says.
To learn more about the Y's Summer Food Program or to find a participating location in your community, visit ymca.net/summerfood.