Quiet, tree-lined gravel roads and shimmering expanses of highway wind through the ancient Appalachians. But scenic rural America’s peaceful summer landscapes hide an unsettling secret: 30 percent of rural kids living in poverty are not receiving the healthy summer meals they need to grow and learn.

The summer months can be brutal on family finances, especially when money is tight to begin with.  When school meals are unavailable, many families struggle to put enough food on the table. We hear stories of moms skipping meals to ensure kids have enough, of bare pantries and empty refrigerators, of gut-wrenching decisions between whether to pay the electric bill or shop for a bag of groceries.

ADVERTISEMENT

The national summer meals program is designed to help kids get consistent nutrition during the summer months. The way the program is currently set up, kids travel to a centralized location (like a church or a park) to eat meals on site at a specific time. (This is known as the “congregate feeding requirement.”)

In places it works well, the program is a lifeline for children in need. Throughout much of the rural United States, however, the program just doesn’t work. Sites are too far away for daily travel. Populations are spread out, public transportation is nonexistent, and kids simply can’t get to the food.

No Kid Hungry knew there must be better ways to reach kids in need, so this summer, we dedicated significant resources to testing new models for rural meals.

In CA, PA, SC, TN, and TX, we are working with our partners to operate pilots for 840 kids from low-income families in rural areas that will provide upwards of 35,000 meals. Our goal was two-fold: Meet the immediate nutrition needs of the kids in our pilot locations, while at the same time, collect data about what works best for families in rural environments. By documenting these lessons learned, we can share them with our colleagues in the field.

We pulled together public-private partnerships with corporations like PepsiCo and Sodexo, and teamed up with food banks, schools, and local nonprofits to take this exciting step forward on behalf of kids who have been shut out by an inefficient system, simply because of where they happen to live.

It’s working.

Here’s just one example: Sneedville, Tennessee, is located deep in Appalachia’s former tobacco farming country. The closest major town is an hour away, and for the 6,000 people who call this community home, there are few resources. Even if families have cars, gas is too precious to drive them unless it’s an emergency, and any summer meal site would be too far away to be feasible for consistent use. Children in this community are living in some of the deepest poverty our country knows.

No Kid Hungry decided to test whether a mobile delivery model would work. Teaming up with local organizations, we arranged a delivery system that drops off summer meals for kids either at their homes or at drop-off points where families can pick up the food and take it home. The process was effective and efficient, and kids were able to reliably get the basic nutrition they need for their growing brains and bodies.

From home delivery, to convenient and informal pick-up locations like beauty salons and daycares, to meal pick-up from automated vending machines, we are testing creative, community-driven solutions that address the most common barriers for hungry kids.

In fact, we heard daily from our partners that this is the only way to reach these children during the summer. They have tried to provide meals through the congregate model, and failed because of the extreme distances children would have to travel to reach a site.

We know these innovative approaches work, but these are small pilots operating outside of the actual summer meals program. They are not coming close to meeting the need and do not represent the public-private partnerships that have made our child nutrition programs so effective nationwide.

To scale these efforts in a way they can reach the millions of kids who need food, we need updated policies. We need action from Congress.

The Child Nutrition Reauthorization legislation now pending in Congress would strengthen existing nutrition programs, including improvements to the summer meals program. This legislation would provide flexibility from the congregate feeding requirement, allowing community organizations to reach kids in hard-to-reach areas through meal drop-offs like the ones we’re testing now, or a grocery credit for low-income families during the summertime. Without these legislative changes, we will never be able to put these innovations into the market and reach kids efficiently and effectively.

With action from Congress, we anticipate that this summer’s innovation could be the new normal—one where we work together to erase the ugly picture of summer hunger, and create a system where every kid gets to enjoy the scenery, even if they happen to live there.

Wendy Bolger is the Director, Program Innovation Strategy at Share Our Strength’s No Kid Hungry Campaign to end childhood hunger.


The views expressed by authors are their own and not the views of The Hill.