Child Poverty

“Summertime, When the Livin’ Is Hard for Hungry Children”

Summertime, and the livin’ is easy
Fish are jumpin’ and the cotton is high
Oh your daddy’s rich and your ma is good-lookin’
So hush, little baby, don’t you cry.

– Lyrics to Summertime, sung by Ella Fitzgerald

Ella Fitzgerald knew a lot about the haves and have nots. She grew up poor and at 17 had been homeless and hungry for a year before she was “discovered” at The Apollo in Harlem in 1934. Think of the millions of hungry children in rich America today who might never be “discovered” or are kept from realizing their talents. And for them summertime is very hard with bouts of hunger. On the last day of school they’ll leave behind more than teachers and friends. They lose access to the school breakfasts, lunches, and after-school snacks that help keep them healthy and ready to learn during the school year. For many children these are their best or only meals of the day.

The 100 percent federally-funded Summer Food Service Program will once again this year be a food lifeline for millions of low-income hungry children during the long hot summer. Right now many community sponsors, including school districts, local government agencies, camps, and private nonprofit organizations are working through their state agencies to be ready to serve healthy meals to millions of children this summer. The Summer Food Service Program tries to meet the need and helps to deliver the dollars to pay for the basic nutrition every child needs every day. For communities that use it, the benefits are enormous. It not only feeds children but provides much needed summer jobs for youth and adults often in communities where jobs are scarce — including cafeteria workers, bus drivers and many others who enable children to stave off summer hunger.

The tragedy is too few of the children who receive school breakfasts or lunches get free meals in the summer. Many more go hungry. The Food Research & Action Center (FRAC) notes more than 20 million children received free or reduced-price school lunch during the 2014-2015 school year, but only 3.2 million of them — one in six — received meals during summer 2015.

No states come close to reaching all their hungry children during the summer. In 2015 only nine states and the District of Columbia served summer meals to more than 20 percent of children who participated in free or reduced-price lunch programs during the school year. Eleven states served summer meals to fewer than one in 10 of their low-income children. But some good news is that state efforts are slowly growing: 29 states did better in summer 2015 than in summer 2014.

States and localities can and must do far more to stop summer hunger. It’s unconscionable that states and communities are leaving millions of dollars on the table that could be used to feed hungry children right now and create jobs supporting summer feeding programs in communities that desperately need them. No communities should be allowed to ignore these funds. As Mrs. Coretta Scott King once said: “I must remind you that starving a child is violence.”

The first step, of course, is to make sure federal, state and local summer nutrition programs remain a budget priority and do not lose ground or go backwards. When more than one million households with children have no income but benefits from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, or food stamps as I still call it), and there is talk of threats to even that critical piece of the safety net, every eligible community must find a way to ensure their children are fed. Find out where the summer feeding sites are in your community. Check with other organizations in your community that provide summer activities for children to help them find ways to add meals. They may need a little help from local foundations or community donations to cover extra expenses like refrigerators or coolers. Smaller programs may be able to link to other food programs in their community to get meals to feed the children in their care. If transportation to summer feeding sites is a problem for children, as it is in a number of states, mobile food vans may be an option with help from local bus or other transportation services.

Summer feeding programs could become the hub for other child-focused activities. Adding programs and services and keeping sites open longer could not only reduce summer hunger but help communities create some desperately-needed jobs and implement greatly needed quality out-of-school-time programs — a win-win. Other communities are testing electronic benefit transfer (EBT) cards to help families purchase extra food for children during the summer. We should be using the Summer Food Service Program as effectively as possible with the achievable goal of ending summer child hunger in every community.

There’s still time to do your part. The Children’s Defense Fund is proud that all of our CDF Freedom Schools® sites will be serving meals this summer, some with Summer Food Service Program partnerships. There is still time to start a site or to link other programs to existing sites. The USDA’s Summer Food Service Program’s website is a helpful resource and offers tips: In order for a site to exist in your community, a school, nonprofit organization or local government agency must be the program sponsor and be responsible for the administration of the program. To begin mobilizing your community, contact the following people or groups, and tell them you want to help feed hungry children in the community this summer. Contact:

  • The school principal
  • Teachers
  • The Parent Teachers Association
  • The school food service manager
  • School officials such as the school board or superintendent of schools
  • The Mayor’s office
  • Recreation and Parks Office County officials
  • Elected officials.

As the USDA says: Volunteer! Our best SFSP [Summer Food Service Program] sites have organized, well-run activities that keep the interest of the children and teens coming back to the site day after day. Some of these activities include arts and crafts, tutoring, mentoring, drama, sports, computer training, music, gardening, reading programs, cooking or any other creative ideas you may have. Many sites have enlisted local fire and police departments, local celebrities, local businesses and local political figures to make presentations to their SFSP sites. The only limitation is your imagination. Please do your part to make this summer a time when living is easier for children by helping stamp out hunger.

Marian Wright Edelman is President of the Children’s Defense Fund whose Leave No Child Behind® mission is to ensure every child a Healthy Start, a Head Start, a Fair Start, a Safe Start and a Moral Start in life and successful passage to adulthood with the help of caring families and communities. For more information go to

Mrs. Edelman’s Child Watch Column also appears each week on The Huffington Post.