For the 20 million children who rely on free and reduced-price school lunch programs in our country, summer can mean a time of hunger and food insecurity. They spend their summer worrying about whether they will eat that day.
The United States Department of Agriculture reports that only 17 percent of those children from lower-income homes will get free meals available over the summer months. That leaves many, many children grappling with hunger in a time when they are supposed to be recharging and growing in anticipation of another school year.
A lot of people think about helping out during holidays, but the time we need the most help is right now, during the summer."
A lack of transportation or awareness is one of many barriers that can keep families from accessing the help they need. But both national and community-based food banks and non-profits, with the help of private donations and volunteers, work hard to reach out and fill the gap — and tummies — during the summer months.
The YMCA hosts its Summer Food Program at 2,500 sites across the country each summer, including parks and low-income apartment complexes in addition to YMCA facilities, in an effort to reach more children who might not have reliable transportation. Last summer, the Y was able to feed over 7,000 meals and snacks to more than 300,000 children through the program.
Celebrity chef and father Andrew Zimmern has partnered with the YMCA to promote the Summer Food Program. Having traveled the world for his work, Zimmern told TODAY Parents that he sees feeding children in need in his own country as a moral imperative and critical to children's emotional and physical health.
"There is a giant care gap represented by meals in front of a child... healthy, nutritious meals in front of a child that exists in America during the summer time," Zimmern said in a video promoting the program.
"A lot of people think about helping out neighbors in need during holidays, when we are already thinking about family and giving, but the time we need the most help is right now, during the summer," said Sasha Hausman, director of philanthropy at the Second Harvest Food Bank of Central Florida. Second Harvest is a private nonprofit organization that collects, stores, and distributes donated food.
During the summer, Second Harvest delivers thousands of meals to "summer break" sites at schools, community centers, and camps where children can receive a hot meal that meets nutritional standards. Volunteers around the country fill trays of food, vacuum-seal them, and place them on trailers that then deliver the meals every day.
Hausman told TODAY Parents that in the past, those meals would have been cereal or sandwiches, but with the help of local restaurants and food drives, local children are eating whole wheat chicken and waffles, whole wheat chicken tacos, turkey hot dogs and fresh fruit and vegetables.
Second Harvest's biggest donor is the Darden family of restaurants, which includes Capital Grille, Bahama Breeze, Seasons 52, and the Olive Garden.
All 800 Olive Garden restaurants in the country donate food surplus to local food banks — including salmon, steak, and lobster ravioli as well as comfort food staples like lasagna, spaghetti and meatballs, and kid-favorite chicken gnocchi soup.
"We feel like it's important, as a restaurant company, to be the ones who are donating food," Winter Park, Florida, Olive Garden General Manager Will Cerrud told TODAY Parents. "We never throw food away, and that gives everyone in the restaurant a sense of pride. Darden is a big brand, but in our communities, we are a part of local culture."
Everyone can help ensure that low-income families and children don't go hungry during the summer months. Four ways you and your children can help:
Non-profits and food banks need physical help at their facilities. You can find out where you can help in your own community by entering your zip code in the "Find a Food Bank" tab on the Feeding America website.
And you can make it a family affair: Though many food banks have age minimums to volunteer, at Second Harvest, for example, children as young as 5 years old are welcome to volunteer with their families on one day a month.
2. Start a fundraiser
You can contribute to food bank fundraisers, such as Second Harvest's Summer Hope for Kids campaign or the Food Bank of Central & Eastern North Carolina's virtual food drive, or you can start your own. Facebook fundraisers will raise money and awareness, too. Your money will go far: $1 provides $9 worth of groceries to a food bank.
"Call your state representatives and ask them about how your state is helping. Share posts on whatever social media you are on — food banks and non-profits are on all the social media channels," said Hausman.
Feeding America's website also has a "Take Action" tab with information about ways to advocate for kids and families in need.
4. Donate food
During the school year, many food banks and schools have "backpack programs" that collect non-perishable food to send home with children on weekends when they cannot benefit from school lunch. You can donate food year-round.
For food banks and organizations like Second Harvest, the mission is to inspire and engage communities to end hunger. "Hunger is a completely solvable problem," said Hausman. "It's not a lack of food; it's a poverty issue."
But for the summer, Hausman said the goal is to send all kids back to school in the fall on an even playing field. "The long term effects of hunger can haunt children for the rest of their lives," she said. "Without proper nutrition, kids can't think, they can't concentrate, they misbehave in class. We just want to make sure their basic needs are met."
This story was first published on July 9, 2018, and has been updated.