America’s kids are going hungry over the summer

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Classes ending in June means boundless joy for kids, right? Not if they’re among the 30 million students who qualify for the federally-assisted meal program and who now likely face “summer hunger”—the result of food-insecure families losing access to the free breakfasts and lunches their children rely on at school throughout the rest of the year, bringing more anxiety, health issues, and academic decline.

“We know summer is the hungriest time of year,” says Rachel Sabella, director of No Kid Hungry New York, a campaign aiming to end childhood hunger nationally, which partnered with HelloFresh and YouGov to commission a survey on the topic. It revealed that 41% of parents struggle in some way to provide food when school is closed, and that nearly half (44%) of parents are more worried now than they were this time last year about getting their kids fed. 

Further, it found that among parents who struggle to provide for everyone in the household, 75% are at least somewhat concerned about the ability to afford food during school breaks, while almost half (42%) reported skipping meals themselves to make sure their kids got fed. The majority said they have either budgeted more carefully (60%) or cut back on other expenses (52%) to address the summer food concerns.

The survey, which was fielded in May and had its findings released on June 20, gathered responses from 459 U.S. parents of children under 18. 

It sought to get up-to-date information about the realities of summer hunger, which experts already know leads to physical, behavioral, and mental-health problems for kids as well as poor academic performance when school begins again, known as the “summer slide,” which disproportionately affects low-income children—not to mention the effect on a parent’s mental health, who may experience depression and anxiety due over the struggle to nourish their children.

“We know that when kids and families are missing meals, it impacts both their physical health and their mental health. Kids that start the day with school breakfast we know have higher attendance rates, they do better in school, and they have less long-term health issues,” Sabella tells Fortune. “When they don’t have regular access to these meals over the summer months, it sets them back. And it can lead to that learning loss.”

It’s also a “real mental-health issue,” she adds, “where so many families think, ‘I’m alone, no one else is struggling this way.’ They don’t want to ask for help, because there’s a stigma associated with it. And that’s something that we really want to take away from this.”

Something the organization really wants to stress is that “the meals are there,” Sabella says. “If you’re eligible, you should take those meals.”

Where to find help

Sabella says her organization has been advocating for two different types of federal programs that will be implemented this year: There’s summer EBT, available nationwide for states that opt in, bringing eligible families $120 as a summer grocery benefit—which has been found to decrease by a third the number of households with children who sometimes went hungry. (But despite that, 15 states have not opted in, including Alabama, Georgia, and Nebraska, whose governor said, “I don’t believe in welfare.”)

There are also non-congregate meal programs, like grab and go or home delivery, for rural communities, where 48% of parents have a friend or relative who has experienced food insecurity when school is out (compared with 36% of parents overall), the survey found.

Also for those struggling in rural areas, 92% said they were concerned about being able to afford food for their family during school breaks and 77% were worried about being able to provide the meals their children typically receive at school. Similarly, in the South, 82% were concerned about being able to afford food in the summer and 66% were worried about being able to provide the meals usually received at school. 

Other solutions, which come with the challenge of sufficiently getting the word out, says Sabella, include local emergency food providers, whether community organizations or faith-based facilities, and food pantries—some of which have partnered with HelloFresh, which donates its surplus of fresh produce to community programs weekly and has designed a meal kit for the food insecure, distributing 40,000 servings directly in a handful of communities weekly. 

“I think a lot of us feel like, you know, we’re past the pandemic. Things are back to normal. But food insecurity has not gotten better since a pandemic—it’s actually gotten worse,” Jeff Yorzyk, senior director of sustainability and summer hunger report lead for HelloFresh North America, tells Fortune. “And as we started to get into the details, we saw there’s a cost of living crisis that’s emerging, really making it more financially stressful for parents. I think it really surprised us how high some of those [food insecurity] numbers were.”

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