Weekly Columns

For many students in Arkansas, summertime represents the end of another exciting school year and signals the start of summer vacations and trips to the lake with family and friends. However, what is meant to be an exciting time for all children brings challenges to Arkansas youth who rely on meals provided at school.

About 280,000 Arkansas students depend on breakfast or lunch served during the school year, but child hunger does not follow the school year calendar. Less than 15 percent of those students have access to the same nutritious meals when school is out. Summer shouldn’t cause children to worry about when and where their next meal will come.

The Arkansas Hunger Relief Alliance recently led efforts to raise awareness of programs that fight summer hunger. Hundreds of locations in Arkansas provide students with access to healthy meals and snacks. Organizations like schools, churches, Boys & Girls Clubs, libraries and other locations serve as host sites for the United States Department of Agriculture’s Summer Food Service Program (SFSP) to offer nutritious food to children from low-income families at no cost.

Helping connect families and children with this program is an important tool in the fight against hunger. Spreading the word of this opportunity for children puts them on the path to success in the fall because ensuring students eat wholesome food year-round improves academic performance. Parents can get a list of locations convenient for their family by texting FOOD to 877 877.

While many meals have been served to Arkansas children in recent summers, there is still room for improvement. Hunger relief leaders shared with me challenges they face to meet the needs of hungry Arkansas children. These leaders helped me identify ways to make SFSP better.

This collaboration led me to introduce the Hunger Free Summer for Kids Act. This legislation will make federal child nutrition programs more efficient and flexible to reach children in need during the summer months when school meals are not available. The current summer meals program operates with a one-size-fits-all approach that doesn’t work well enough in rural areas of Arkansas and other hard to reach communities, but this bill would improve the program by providing states more options to choose what makes the most sense in their communities. 

Earlier this year the Senate Agriculture Committee included this legislation to reform the summer meals program in a comprehensive reauthorization of the nation’s child nutrition programs.

Children should spend their summers having fun in the outdoors. We can help make that a reality by creating more opportunities for children to access healthy, nutritious meals when class is not in session.