For many Florida students, hunger isn't taking a summer vacation

Jul 20, 2012

For many students in Florida, summer vacation means finally getting out of the classroom and away from tests and homework.  For others, the summer months could also mean trying to figure out where their next meal will come from.  Research shows that during the summer most students forget some of what they’ve learned over the school year. It’s called the summer slide. But for low-income students, that slide is often compounded by a food crisis.  But those students can get  an educational boost with something as simple and essential as a free meal.

In Leon County’s Apalachee Elementary school cafeteria, a group of children have arrived just in time for lunch.

On the menu: hamburgers, tater tots, milk- white or chocolate, and a small plastic cup filled with diced pears. One by one, the kids take their lunch and file out into the dining area. It’s a scene that you’d usually see in the middle of the school year. But in this case, it’s the middle of the summer.

They always have this delicious food,” said 3rd grader Ca’Maya Smith. She’s a student in a summer school program at Apalachee Elementary and said she loves learning about Native Americans. Her favorite thing is the art activities, but the food is definitely a bonus. But Ca’Maya said she knows many other students who, unlike her, go hungry during the summer.

“It kind of feels sad to me, because they don’t have anything. And if they don’t come to the school, they don’t get anything to eat.”  

Summer Hunger is something school districts around the state have been working to combat. During the school year more than 1.6 million Florida children participate in the federal free and reduced school lunch program. During the summer, there are free food sites spread across the state – but only about 14 percent of students who need food show up.

“I don’t know how to get them here. I don’t know if it’s a matter of transportation, or of pride. I’m just not sure how to get them here. We put up fliers, put it up on our website. We do all we can to let the community know we’re an open site,” said Darcy Atkins, who helps coordinate Apalachee’s summer food program. She said she sees maybe about 100 kids on a good day:

Summer food programs around the nation are under-used, according to a report from the Food Research and Action Center. The Federal government continues to give money to schools and organizations that provide the summer meals. But because so few students show up, Florida is leaving about $20 million dollars in federal support for the program on the table.

“There’s a huge gap between the number of kids that qualify for free and reduced lunch during the school year, and those that are accessing free meals during the summer time,” said the Food Research and Action Center’s Signey Anderson.

Part of the problem confronting states is funding. Shrinking budgets have led to cuts in services like summer food programs. Other problems include site locations being in local churches or YMCA’s, instead of schools.

The lack of access to food for some low-income students compounds an already fragile situation. Research shows that over the summer, most students have lost about a month’s worth of learning by the time they report back to school in the fall. This problem is worse for low-income students, and it’s even worse for those that go hungry.

“We think there’s a huge connection there between the learning gap and hunger. If you can’t sit down and concentrate because you’re hungry, you aren’t going to do very well in school or on tests,” Anderson said.  

And kids are really aware of this.

“It makes you feel a little bad, because, they’re always here for lunch and they’re always so happy. They never complain about the meals, no matter what,” said fifth grader Kenneth Walker who is also in the Apalachee Elementary summer program. Walker says whether the adults know it or not, he and his peers can always spot those who are hungry.

There are more than 3,000 summer food sites throughout Florida, including 600 in Miami and 400 in Orlando. Orange, Polk and Osceola County Public Schools have even created mobile food units that travel to rural areas to reach hungry students. The Florida Department of Agriculture runs Florida’s school food programs.  It’s trying to raise awareness by partnering with the United Way’s 2-1-1 social service number to get needy families in contact with the sites.  The free summer meals are just one small way local groups and communities are fighting the summer learning slide. But the summer food programs continue to be under-used and over-looked.