While most of our keiki celebrate the start of summer vacation, those who rely on school meals may see it differently. For them, the “wonder” of summer might not mean fun, but wondering when and where they will find their next meal.

In Hawaii, barely one out of 12 of our students who had free or reduced-price lunches during the school year also got summer meals year, on average. That places us a dismal 47th in the nation for summer nutrition participation, according to a new report from the Food Research and Action Center.

On the other hand, the top jurisdiction, the District of Columbia, served summer meals to half of their low-income children who had school lunch, while New Mexico and Vermont got summer food to a third of them.

Not enough low-income students who get free or reduced lunches during the school year also get assistance during the summer, causing setbacks and diminishing prospects for them academically and in overall success.

Not enough low-income students who get free or reduced lunches during the school year also get assistance during the summer, causing setbacks and diminishing prospects for them academically and in overall success.

Hawaii DOE

Thankfully, efforts are underway to boost the availability of summer meals in Hawaii. For example, the Department of Education is running 68 summer foods sites this year, up from 42 sites last year. The meals are available for all children and youth up to the age of 18. Parks and recreation and community centers are sponsoring sites as well.

If Hawaii could get summer meals to four out of every 10 low-income kids, then 20,000 more would be fed and our state would receive almost $1.6 million more in federal funding in July alone. Those additional free summer meals would help feed more children who would otherwise go hungry and relieve pressures on struggling families’ budgets, while the federal dollars would give an extra boost to our local economy.

Summer food can also help our children learn. Free meals draw kids to programs at schools, parks and community centers. Not only does the nutrition nourish their bodies, but the summer activities help them maintain what they learned during the school year.

We all lose our skills when we don’t practice. Research shows that summer learning loss is a real problem, with children across all income levels losing some of their math skills over the break. Disadvantaged students fall even further behind their peers during summer vacation. While higher-income children’s reading skills stay stable over the summer, studies find that low-income kids lose more than two months of reading achievement during the summer break.

Everyone in the community — businesses, social service providers and individuals — can help to get the word out about where children in need can find free summer food across the state.

These learning losses accumulate year after year. In fact, experts say that disadvantaged children’s lack of access to summer enrichment programs during their elementary school years explains up to two-thirds of the achievement gap between low- and higher-income ninth graders. This, in turn, seriously affects their chances of graduating from high school and going on to college.

To help our keiki get the nutrition and activities that they need to thrive, there is more that we can do to amplify the existing efforts to increase the number of summer food sites. For one, everyone in the community — businesses, social service providers and individuals — can help to get the word out about where children in need can find free summer food across the state. Many of the sites are shown on the USDA’s summer food finder webpage.

In addition, we can follow the lead of determined groups like Kona Pacific Public Charter School and Hawaii Island Youth Corps, which have launched a mobile summer food program, addressing the barrier posed by long distances by bringing the meals to the kids. Last year, they served over 4,300 lunches and they’ll likely serve many more this year.

This type of community support and innovation is just what we need to move our state’s summer nutrition ranking up and get needed meals to more deserving kids. After this summer is over, we can work to make connections between community partners and provide other support to create more summer food sites in 2017.

With our state’s business, government, education and community leaders united behind the goal of having 55 percent of our adults with a college degree by 2025, it’s crucial that we all recognize the connections between children’s summer activities, nutrition and overall academic outcomes.

By working together to expand an essential program like summer meals, we can help improve the food security and academic achievement of our keiki, which in turn will improve our entire state’s economy and future.

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