The end of the school year is an exciting time for many children and their families, but the upcoming summer months will be a challenging time for children who rely on free and reduced price school meals. Instead of making fun memories this summer, these children will be busy trying to ignore the pain of hunger as long summer days drag on.
The effects of food insecurity are detrimental, but they are particularly devastating for children. A child who is considered food insecure lacks access to enough food for an active, healthy life. As children grow and learn, proper nutrition is imperative, and a lack thereof can cause higher risks of iron deficiency anemia; more frequent stomach aches, headaches and colds; and higher hospitalization rates in addition to developmental problems according to research from the United States Department of Agriculture.
Although there have been significant improvements year over year in food insecurity among children across the county, the fact remains that 13.1 million children in America are at risk of hunger. According to the Map the Meal Gap report released by Feeding America earlier this month, this includes 315,370 Tennessee children.
In Wilson County, 5,170 children are considered food insecure. While the county's child food insecurity rate ranks as the fourth lowest in the state, Wilson County is among the top two counties with the highest rate of food-insecure children that are likely not income-eligible for federal nutrition assistance, meaning these children live in households with incomes above 185 percent of the poverty line. Luckily, the 2,068 Wilson County children living in these households have the option to seek charitable food assistance.
Throughout the school year, the BackPack Program is a national program that Feeding America, the nation's largest domestic hunger relief network, and its network of food banks operate in local communities to address childhood hunger. Middle Tennessee's local Feeding America food bank, Second Harvest Food Bank of Middle Tennessee, operated six BackPack Programs in Wilson County, feeding 885 children per week for 40 weeks during the 2016/17 school year.
This summer, Second Harvest will sponsor two sites, including the Watertown Public Library, in Wilson County for the Summer Food Service Program, which provides breakfasts, lunches and suppers to help ensure that children continue to receive nutritious means when school is not in session. In addition to food, many sites provide educational enrichment and recreational activities that help children continue to learn and stay safe and active while school is not in session.
"Although free and reduced-price meals in school alleviate some hunger issues, we know children are still at risk during school breaks," says Whitney Cowles, director of Nutrition and Program Assurance at Second Harvest. "The Summer Food Service Program ensures that children in our community have access to nutritious meals and snacks when other resources are not available."
Summer truly is the most challenging time for families with school-age children. Soon many families who are struggling to make ends meet will be faced with the added worry of providing enough food while kids are home from school this summer. Second Harvest has set a goal to provide 4 million summer meals for children and their families to help make this a Hunger Free Summer for all. Gifts of food, time and funds help provide for the vulnerable children in our community, even when the school cafeteria is closed.
To learn how to help ensure a Hunger Free Summer for Middle Tennessee children, please visit secondharvestmidtn.org. To learn how to find summer meals for children and teens 18 and younger, please visit fns.usda.gov/summerfoodrocks.