July 9, 2013 -- Summer means hunger for millions of kids across the country. That's because when school ends, so do many free and reduced-price meal programs.
But that's not always the biggest obstacle.
Even when summer meals are available, kids have trouble getting them. Sometimes they are served at a recreation center across town and it's just too far to walk. Or parents are often at work, so catching a ride with Mom or Dad isn't typically an option. Low-income kids are also likelier to live near gang violence that can be dangerous to walk through. Highways, too, pose a sometimes insurmountable obstacle.
It might sound contradictory, but poor children also face the highest risk of obesity in the summer, because a bag of chips and a soda from a convenience store can be more accessible than fresh produce.
Share Our Strength, a nonprofit aimed at ending child hunger in the United States, says it's found a solution in food trucks, typically the bailiwick of hipsters and young professionals. The organization is running a mobile meals pilot program in Prince George's County, Maryland this summer and it's going so well they hope to expand it next year.
Molly McCloskey, Director of Share Our Strength's Maryland No Kid Hungry Campaign, said that last summer just a fraction of eligible kids were receiving meals.
"Instead of expecting kids to come to us, which is the traditional model," she said, "we decided we would go directly to where they are."
Her organization, which receives no federal funding but is partnered with groups like the Sodexo Foundation, works as an intermediary between the school districts, who receive federal funding through the state's Department of Education to provide meals, and large apartment complexes that agree to distribute those meals to nearby kids.
The specifics can be complicated when it comes to funding and orchestrating the whole thing, but all the kids know is that a truck or school bus pulls up in front of a nearby apartment complex each morning and offloads healthy, balanced meals that the complex then distributes at a set time to the children. No stress involved.
And it's made a world of difference. McCloskey said a grateful grandmother who cares for five children approached her close to tears the first day and said, "I wasn't sure how I was going to feed them."
The program has also had an unintended benefit. Apartment managers have started organizing group trips to the pool or playground for the kids before or after meal times.
It's proven that kids who eat regular meals concentrate better, which means they test higher. That can lead to better grades, which can lead to higher graduation rates and college acceptance letters. In other words, a sandwich isn't just a sandwich for some kids. Lunch can be a lifechanger.
According to Share Our Strength, families with children who typically eat meals at school during the academic year can find themselves spending an average of about $300 more on groceries during the summer. For a family living at or below the poverty line, that can mean having to choose between feeding the kids or paying the utilities bill.
Food banks try to alleviate some of the strain, but people don't tend to think about donating food during the summer months when need is actually greatest, so they have trouble keeping up with demand.
Share Our Strength selected the complexes it's partnered with carefully. The organization is working with large management companies who operate apartments in other cities in the hopes that the relationship they establish in this pilot program will translate into many more programs at those complexes next summer. They are also working to launch a supper mobile meals program to make sure kids get dinner during the school year.
"It's about building awareness," McCloskey said, "and providing access and building the capacity of sponsors like the school district and sites like the residence community to meet the community's needs."