About 1 in every 4 Georgia children doesn’t know where their next meal is coming from.
Summers are especially trying, when children can’t rely on one or two meals a day at school.
But experts say the problem with feeding children in the summer isn’t about access or availability. It’s about missed opportunities.
Across the country, the state and throughout Hall County, a small percentage — about 16 percent — of families and children in need are actually taking advantage of federally funded summer meal programs. In both Gainesville and Hall school systems, summer meal sites providing two hot meals a day through the USDA’s Seamless Summer Option were underused by families.
Sara Sheridan, nutrition coordinator for Hall County Schools, said Hall had 16 sites participate: 11 elementary schools, three middle schools and two high schools.
“Despite our sites being open to the community, most of our participants were students in summer school or summer camps taking place at the schools,” Sheridan said. “Because our school district is so widespread, and many of our schools are beyond reasonable walking distance from homes, I do not think that many families took advantage of the program.”
According to the Georgia Food Bank Association, childhood food insecurity in Georgia is about 7 percent higher than the national average.
But No Kid Hungry Georgia, a partner of the state food bank association, states children aren’t hungry because of a lack of food, rather the underutilization of federal food and nutrition programs.
The organization reports that in Georgia, only 14 percent of children who receive a free or reduced-price lunch during the school year participate in summer meal programs.
Sheridan said the district advertises the option, but transportation may be a hindrance to families in the county.
“We certainly advertise to the public through signage, our website and our social media pages,” she said. “I expect that Gainesville City Schools had a higher number of families take advantage of their summer feeding program since their district is fairly concentrated and many feeding sites are within walking distance of the community they serve.”
But Penny Fowler, school nutrition director for Gainesville schools, said they, too, had few families participate at Gainesville Middle School or Fair Street International Academy.
“The Summer Feeding program was a success and everything ran very smooth,” Fowler said. “We, however, did not see many parents at either of the sites. Normally parents are working during the summer months. If parents have the time available in their schedules, we would encourage them to come in and have breakfast or lunch.”
In Gainesville, the majority of its children eating summer meals were part of summer school, the Boys & Girls Clubs of Hall County, the RISE Program and other partner groups.
“We served 400 at the Fair Street site for breakfast and lunch,” Fowler said. “The Gainesville Middle School site served just a little over 100 for lunch.”
Sheridan said while more families could take advantage of the available meals, the districts receive the same reimbursement for a summer meal as they do for meals during the school year. So “not much goes to waste.”
Sheridan added there was great growth from summer 2015 to 2016, and she hopes that growth will continue each year.
“Summer 2015 was our first summer participating in summer feeding,” she said. “And we served around 10,000 additional meals this past summer, so we would love to see that kind of increase each summer.”