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Access to healthy food through summer nutrition programs is of increasing importance in improving a child’s daily nutrition and maintaining proper food security. The Palmdale School District is working to address the ongoing challenge of providing healthy meals to students who qualify for lunch programs during the school year, but are left with no good nutritional options during the summer break. A free summer lunch program is offered daily through July 28 for local youth 18 years and under at the following times and locations:

—11 a.m. to noon at McAdam Park, 38115 30th St. East;

—11:15 a.m. to 12:15 p.m. at Palmdale Moose Lodge No. 507, 3101 East Ave. Q;

— 11:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. at Courson Park, 38226 10th St. East;

—11:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. at Joshua Hills Park, 3030 Fairfield Ave.;

—11:45 a.m. to 12:45 p.m. at Christ Church of the Valley, 2714 Ave. R;

—11:45 a.m. to 12:45 p.m. at Desert Sands Park, 39117 3rd St. East;

—noon to 1 p.m. at Buena Vista School, 37005 Hillcrest Dr.;

—12:15 p.m. to 1:15 p.m. at Domenic Massasri Park, 37716 55th St. East.

Hunger doesn’t take a vacation

Summer lunch programs are more crucial now than ever. Many children attending school utilize lunch programs because of limited household finances. Often, many of these families are on government aid and don’t have the extra money to prepare a nutritious lunch for their children. During the school year, this difficulty is alleviated somewhat because federal programs are mandated to provide a healthy meal to school children, one that meets the nutritional guidelines established by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA). But once summer vacation begins, hundreds of thousands of children nationwide go without a healthy and balanced mid-day meal.

While the summer break is something that all kids look forward to, unfortunately hunger doesn’t take a vacation. The USDA reports that more than 21 million American children and teens depend on free or reduced-price school meals during the school year, and when school cafeterias close, many youngsters lose their most important source of balanced nutrition and are at risk of going hungry. Summer meals programs can help to fill this gap as they serve as an important source of nutritious food for children and youth during the long summer break. Summer nutrition helps prepare children to go into the next school year energized and ready to learn. In addition, many of the meal sites offer recreation and enrichment programs, therefore children are not only well-fed, but have the opportunity to take part in activities that will keep them active and healthy when school is out of session.

Increase in ‘food insecurity’

Two years ago, the USDA conducted a study with the Summer Electronic Benefit Transfer for Children (SEBTC) program (similar to Women With Infant children or “WIC”) to study the growing trend of food insecurity among families with children. The study provided families with eligible children a monthly benefit of $60 for them to use toward food during the summer months using the existing electronic benefit transfer (EBT) systems. The approach was successful because it reduced the prevalence of very low food security among children (who would have otherwise received no nutritious lunch during the summer) by about one third of participants. The demonstration found that children in households with SEBTC ate more fruits and vegetables, whole grains and dairy products.

Summer lunch programs like the one taking place in Palmdale provide meals that meet federally approved nutritional standards. Studies have shown that children from low-income households actually gain weight—sometimes as much as three times faster than during the normal school year—in the summer months after eating too much junk or fast food and not exercising regularly. The USDA study found that without access to nutritious summer meals, poor children are more likely to suffer from food insecurity and may gain weight as they resort to less healthy, but easily accessible food options. Improving nutrition and food security can help these children maintain a healthy body mass index during the summer.

Nutrition and the ‘achievement gap’

A 2015 USDA report indicated that when a child gains weight—specifically resulting from unbalanced dietary intake—he/she is more susceptible to chronic diseases such as iron deficiency anemia, asthma, type 2 diabetes, and heart disease, any of which may result in frequent hospitalization even at a young age. Food insecurity also affects a child’s mental wellbeing, and may lead to conditions such as depression, anxiety or aggression. Also, those children experiencing food insecurity report higher rates of mental illness, thereby leading to a need for more mental health services for them. This federal study, for obvious reasons, attests that proper nutrition from summer nutrition programs can support the continued brain development and the cognitive functioning necessary to maintain academic achievements made during the school year. USDA researchers suggested that by increasing children’s food security and intake of healthy food, summer nutrition programs have had a direct affect on improvement of cognitive functioning, which may help to mitigate summer learning loss and close the “achievement gap.”

Consumption of nutritious food not only supports better cognitive functioning in the summer, it also positions children from low-income families to learn and perform well once they return to the classroom. Nutritious meals protect against cognitive decline, which can help to mitigate summer learning loss. A 2008 study published in Journal of Nutrition found that “food insecurity at the kindergarten level predicted impaired academic performance in reading and mathematics,” providing further evidence of how important food security is to maximum academic performance.

Financial cost of poor nutrition

Other studies have shown that the achievement gap due to early summer learning loss—a partial result of poor nutrition—means that later in life, children from low-income families are less likely to be placed in college preparatory high school curriculum, graduate from high school, and attend college. As children build confidence and proficiency in the classroom, they are more likely to graduate, as some students list poor performance as their primary reason for dropping out of school. At the inception of the federal school meal program in the mid-1960s, educators found that children are at an academic disadvantage, when they come to school hungry.

There is a financial cost to society related to poor summer nutrition. The ConAgra Food Foundation conducted a study in 2011 revealing that “food insecure” children, especially during the summer months, are 31-percent more likely to be hospitalized (the average pediatric hospitalization costs about $12,000). Because of the elevated BMI count resulting from a poor diet of fast food/junk food, the average total health expenses for a child treated for obesity (under private insurance) is more than 200 percent higher than the average health cost for a child covered by private insurance. The elevated BMI count in children is associated with $14.1 billion in health expenses and hospitalization annually.

‘No Kid Hungry’

The correlation between summer food insecurity and poor classroom work accounts for two months of academic loss for these children. A specific study, “What if Summer Learning Loss Were an Education Priority” presented at an educational research conference in Maryland in 2002 indicated that having to re-teach a failing child takes up about 22 percent of the average school district budget or, in dollars-and-cents, just over $1,500 per child. All of these monetary factors can be tied to children not receiving proper nutrition year-round, but in the summer months it can be more harmful to the child because there are generally no regularly scheduled hours for meals, therefore children will often skip good nutrition in favor of eating “on the fly.”

The No Kid Hungry campaign has worked to stem the rising tide of children going without proper nutrition. Their mission statement of “no child should grow up hungry in America” focuses on the alarming statistic that one in five children in the richest, most prosperous nation in the world struggles with hunger. The Share Our Strength campaign, which is associated with the No Kid Hungry project, is working to end childhood hunger in California and across the nation by ensuring that children receive the healthy food they need, every day. No Kid Hungry connects children in need with effective nutrition programs like school breakfast and summer meals and teaches low-income families to cook healthy, affordable meals through its Cooking Matters program.

This work is accomplished through the No Kid Hungry network, composed of private citizens, public officials, nonprofits, business leaders and others providing innovative hunger solutions in their communities. In Los Angeles, the No Kid Hungry campaign partners with Share Our Strength and California Food Policy Advocates. For about six years, the No Kid Hungry network has helped to bring more than 34 million meals to kids who need them and has created ways to replicate that success across the country. In the southland, No Kid Hungry has focused on expanding access to school breakfast and meals in daycare settings. The campaign has also empowered more than 5,600 California families with the skills, knowledge and confidence to prepare healthy, affordable meals through the Cooking Matters initiative.