Lack of access to healthy meals during summer months is, ironically, causing two separate health issues among minority children: hunger and obesity.
Statistics from the Food Research and Action Center show that 32 percent of black households with children were food insecure in 2010, almost 12 percent higher than the national average.
This research indicates that food insecurity — when families do not know if they will have enough food to eat — is also to blame for the rises in obesity and hunger.
Another FRAC report explains that hunger, caused by a lack of sufficient healthy foods, and obesity, due to unhealthy eating and bad exercise habits, are the result of low incomes and a lack of access to nutritious foods.
The two problems can co-exist due to poverty, experts say. And, during the summer when many low-income parents can hardly afford camps, many minority children are left inactive and eating poorly.
Low-income parents may also experience what FRAC calls cycles of food deprivation and overeating — essentially skipping meals to stretch budgets, and overeating whenever they do eat.
Education experts have dealt with this phenomenon for many years, of how to overcome the lack of access to food and physical activity once school is out. Adequate nutrition is fundamental for brain development and improves a child’s cognitive functioning, which helps improve grades during the school year, they say.
The availability of summer school programs provides access to the same free healthy meals that kids get consistently during the school year. It also offers a level of continuity in physical activity. In 2010, only one in seven low-income children who received meals through the National Summer Lunch Program had access to summer meals.
The American Association of School Administrators also reports that 29 percent of school boards across the country are considering eliminating summer school programs in 2012-13 due to budget constraints, a 7 percent increase over the current school year.
Research reveals that minority children lose more than two months of reading and math achievement while their middle-class peers make slight gains. The decline is more among children who do not attend summer camps. And, nutrition is a significant part of this.
In Oakland, Calif., Jane O’Brien, Coordinator of Summer Learning for the Oakland Unified School District says that her program will serve approximately 6,500 kids this summer. The program is able to use Title I funding to support summer programs, despite the fiscal problems facing California in recent years.
She also said that the children come from a combination of district schools and other non-profit programs.
“Our nutritional services [provider] that operates during the school year has been a partner in the summer program,” O’Brien said. “And they provide not only morning snacks [but] lunch and afternoon snacks. Last summer they served over a quarter of a million meals.”
The National Summer Learning Association — in partnership with the Walmart Foundation — is assisting local programs and schools in 11 cities to provide summer education and fitness through a 3-year program called Smarter Summers. In addition to academics, it offers meals, physical activity and instruction on health living.
“Summer learning programs often are the providers of those meals through the USDA’s Summer Food Program. Kids attending learning programs are much more likely to be able to access those meals,” said Kate Shatzkin of the National Summer Learning Association.
These programs also offer meals to kids in the community who are not part of that school such as older siblings, she said.
One partner program, called Higher Achievement, supporting Washington, D.C. and its suburbs, offers a summer program for middle school students.
Lynsey Jeffries, the D.C. Metro executive director, said they serve low-income, under-resourced communities where students have the least access to academic opportunities as a result of poverty and under-funded schools.
“[We work with a nutrition partner] that partners with a number of schools to provide healthy, mostly organic, locally sourced foods,” Jeffries said. This, she explains, helps to combat the obesity and food insecurity challenges low-income kids face in the summer.
Katherine Roboff, Senior Director of Programs at Higher Achievement, says the organization trains its staff in a youth development approach which emphasizes academic, developmental and physical outcomes by offering dance, yoga, sports and step classes to students.
“When a student’s physical and other needs are not met, it is increasingly difficult to focus on academics,” Roboff says.