Summer Meals: What Happens When School’s Out
What happens to FRL-eligible students during Summer Vacation
With the start of June comes the beginning of summer break for most schools around the state. While this is usually an exciting time and an opportunity to recuperate from the successes and challenges of the school year, this also means many students lose the most stable source of food during their week.
Often used as a proxy for poverty, the Free/Reduced-Price Lunch indicator in education data is an actual program in which economically-disadvantaged students participate. To help students with the greatest needs, the federal government administers the National School Lunch Program (NSLP) and School Breakfast Program (SBP), providing low or no-cost meals to eligible students. Both the NSLP and the SBP are available to students in public and private schools, with state and local education agencies administering the program on the ground.
Providing meals to students at school is intended to help students learn. If students are hungry, it’s not very likely they will focus on what is being taught. Multiple rigorous evaluations of school meal programs including the NSLP and SBP have found that schools that participate in these programs have students who experience more positive academic outcomes. Research from Hinrichs (2010) finds students who participated in the NSLP attain more education than their peers who do not participate. Studies of free school breakfast from Frisvold (2013), Leos-Urbel and colleagues (2012), and Imbermans and Kugler (2014) showed improved achievement and improved attendance.
During the 2017-18 school year, half of Missouri’s students qualified for either free or reduced-price meals provided through the NSLP, with one-third of Missouri’s students participating in the SBP. This means that just under 450,000 public school students in Missouri are provided lunch at low or no cost through their school and 289,000 Missouri students are receiving breakfast at school. The most recent national numbers show that just under 30 million students participated in the NSLP and just under 15 million students participated in the SBP.
In addition to targeted programs like the NSLP and SBP, schools and districts with the greatest need qualify for the Community Eligibility Provision (CEP). This allows schools to provide all enrolled students with no-cost breakfast and lunch. During the 2018-19 school year, Missouri had 418 schools use the CEP and provided free meals to nearly 140,000 students through this program. Student need in Missouri is not concentrated in certain parts of the state, as shown in Figure 1 below. Clearly, students across the state are in need of meals.
While the NSLP and SBP help schools provide a vital service to students, these programs don’t necessarily cover students in the summer months. A study on food insufficiency (families’ access to meals) found that students who participate in the NSLP during the school year experience greater food insufficiency during the summer months. This should seem relatively obvious given that schools provide meals to NSLP-eligible students, but can only do so when school is in session. Missouri is no exception.
During the 2017-18 school year, Missouri schools served an average of 9.6 million free lunches and 4.8 million breakfasts per month during the school year (September to May). The total number of NSLP and SBP meals served in June dropped to just over 1 million lunches and 575,000 breakfasts. This falls even lower during July, with 109,839 lunches and 88,410 breakfasts served.
Food insecurity does not just exist during the school year, meaning most of the students who benefit from these meal programs likely do not have access to meals during the summer months. Federal programs like the Seamless Summer Option (SSO) encourage Local Education Agencies to provide meals during the summer and on school vacation periods (i.e. winter and spring breaks).
Additionally, many community partners in Missouri work to ensure that students are able to access meals in the summer months. Programs like No Kid Hungry have partnered with community groups across the state to provide meals to Missouri’s students during the summer months. However, availability does not ensure uptake. The biggest challenge is getting children--especially the youngest students--to and from meal sites during the summer months.
A case study of schools in Maryland offering summer nutrition programs found higher levels of academic proficiency and improved high school graduation rates compared to schools that did not offer a summer nutrition program. Providing meals to students during the summer may help to mitigate at least a portion of what is known as “summer learning loss” and leave students better prepared to hit the ground running when the school year kicks off.
You can learn more about the differences in Free/Reduced-Price Lunch eligibility in the St. Louis and Kansas City regions in our regional profiles, as well as differences in achievement for districts serving varying percentages of FRL-eligible students in Missouri.
For a full list of No Kid Hungry community partners providing summer meals, visit their website here.
If you’re in the St. Louis area, go here to find a list of “School’s Out Cafe’s”.