Analyzing the Summertime Hunger Paradox: How We Can Improve the USDA’s Summer Meals Program for U.S. Children from Low-Income Households
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This study examines regular access to healthy food in summertime as a social determinant of health affecting children in the United States. Through a close study of the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA)’s Summer Meals Program (aka the Summer Food Service Program), we will see evidence that it has been, to some extent, successful in its dual purpose: to mitigate rising rates of obesity and food insecurity for children in the U.S. This study points to evidence of the program’s success for children in low-income households in the United States, especially those in urban areas as compared to rural areas. Delving into an assessment of the Summer Meals Program, the study incorporates the author’s empirical research as a volunteer Program participant into a critical analysis. The literature shows that rates of childhood obesity and food insecurity both rise during the summertime months for children of low-income backgrounds, and that increased mealtime structure and access to free or reduced-cost, nutritious meals are effective in alleviating both problems. The USDA’s Summer Meals Program works to provide a free meal service aimed at addressing these issues, but it does not go far enough. This study finds that the Summer Meals Program would benefit significantly if parental example were incorporated into the program, and if the Program became more accessible to rural families. This policy change proposal matters because most food justice advocacy groups argue for blanket measures in which the government increases funding in hopes of increasing overall participation rates. While increased government funding is a component of improvement, simply increasing program funding will most likely not translate to increasing program effectiveness. Instead, this study finds that there is a hole in the literature regarding efficacy of the actual structure of the program. Public health experts have demonstrated that mealtime structure properly demonstrated by parents helps kids to learn positive eating and dietary behaviors from an early age. Additionally, the study finds that there is a major problem with accessibility of the program for children in rural areas, creating an unfair disadvantage for a population that has statistically high rates of food insecurity and poverty in the U.S. The Summer Meals Program as it currently stands is missing basic components of parental engagement and needs to have better accessibility for all recipient demographics, leading this study to propose that the USDA should implement a two-prong policy change. This study finds that the first major change to the program should be to allow up to one (1) parent per child to eat with their child for up to one (1) meal for free per day. The second change is modeled after the proposed Summer Meals Act of 2014, which is to enable the Secretary of Agriculture to authorize grants for the creation of mobile meal trucks that will allow more children and parents in remote areas access to the Program. This recommendation differs from the mobile meal truck idea in the Act through its recommendation of, in addition to the trucks, providing portable picnic tables and/or blankets to create space around the trucks that will encourage parents to eat with their children.