June 7, 2013— -- There's a dark side to the bells that will signal the start of summer at schools across the country this afternoon.
They also mean the start of hunger for most of the more than 30 million kids who eat free or reduced meals each school day.
Fewer than three million kids participated in a USDA-funded summer program to feed kids through community organizations and local governments last year.
Some families don't know it exists and others have trouble getting their kids to the meals on a regular basis. Sometimes things like busy highways and violent neighborhoods literally stand in the way. Either way, summer makes for lots of hungry kids.
According to the USDA, kids who skip meals are more likely to be disruptive and inattentive in class, and they tend to score lower on tests. And while there might not be any exams over the summer, children can still suffer physically and socially.
Students in a family of four that earned less than about $42,650 during the last school year were eligible for reduced meals while children in a family of the same size that earned up to about $30,000 were eligible for free meals.
During the summer, some of those families end up at food banks. Except that food banks can have trouble keeping up with the increased demand.
According to Page Crosland, a spokesperson for Washington, D.C.'s Capital Area Food Bank, people tend to think about donating to food banks during the holiday season. They may see President Obama and his family serve a Thanksgiving meal and decide to do the same, for example. But that doesn't happen as often in the summer when need is even greater.
The USDA has several efforts aimed at drawing attention to summer hunger, such as a competition between federal agencies to encourage government employees to donate food, but that's not likely enough.
Crosland said the food bank tries especially hard to emphasize healthy eating during the summer, but it's not the same for one big reason. The federally funded meals children receive during the year have to meet certain nutritional standards. Those don't always carry over to the meals kids eat in the summer. The Capital Area Food Bank runs an urban garden and has a training kitchen to teach families how to cook healthy meals.
"We're trying to encourage kids to have an apple or an orange rather than Cheetos or chips," she said.
But because summers are difficult, the food bank never turns food away, healthy or not.