Austin: Kids need food after school year ends, too

John Austin

When school ends, the bellies of hungry kids who rely on school breakfast and lunches don’t magically get filled over summer recess. But only a small fraction of the children who start the day with a healthy meal at school continue to get the food they need from summer programs. We can do a lot better than that for our children.

Teachers have long known that children who come to school hungry have trouble paying attention in class, easily fall behind, end up feeling bad about themselves and headed in the wrong direction. That’s why the federal school breakfast and lunch programs are so important for children’s development and chance of getting a good start in their lives.

When the school year ends, summer programs at parks and recreation centers, YMCAs and Boys and Girls clubs fill in by serving nutritious meals and snacks. But now only 1 in 7 children who get help with meals at school continue to get the meals they need from these summer programs.

Fortunately, there are a few common-sense steps that Congress can take to be sure that a lot more kids get the meals they need during the summer. One bipartisan bill in Congress, called the Summer Meals Act of 2015, would bring meals into more low-income communities.

It would also fund transportation, so kids can get to the programs and mobile meal trucks can get to the kids. With so many parents working long hours just to meet the basics, the legislation would also fund three meals a day at the programs, which will help not only feed children, but keep them safe and engaged in healthy activities.

Even if we are able to get more children into summer programs, there will still be many who don’t have programs in their communities. Another proposal in Congress, the Stop Child Summer Hunger Act, helps those children get healthy meals by providing the families who qualify for free or reduced price school meals with a card they can use to purchase food during the summer.

While we’ve been talking about our obligation to be sure that school-age children get the nutrition they need, we shouldn’t forget about the most important developmental time for any child — conception through a child’s second birthday. Not getting the food children need in these vital early months often condemns children to a life of low achievement as their brains don’t develop properly.

Despite this, a committee in Congress voted in June to cut $139 million from the WIC program, which provides education and vouchers for nutrient-rich food to pregnant and nursing women, babies and toddlers. There’s no excuse for that.

Many families have a tough time meeting the basics, and many kids don’t have the predictability and continuity in their lives to deliver the basics, like a decent meal. It’s in all our interests to help these kids get the start they need, including healthy food that every child needs, so that they can set off to a bright future.

John Austin is president of the State Board of Education.