Summertime program boosts poor kids' food security, nutritional intake

By Hank Schultz

- Last updated on GMT

Related tags: Nutrition, Food

Free lunch programs don't reach kids during the summer, so a pilot program tested the idea of giving money directly to parents.
Free lunch programs don't reach kids during the summer, so a pilot program tested the idea of giving money directly to parents.
A US government demonstration program to provide school-age children from low-income households with meals and snacks during the summer months showed a 33% decrease in the rate of very low food security among children in the demonstration’s second year, according to a new study conducted by Abt Associates in partnership with Mathematica Policy Research.

The Summer Electronic Benefits Transfer for Children (SEBTC) demonstration, funded by the USDA’s Food and Nutrition Service, is aimed at reducing childhood hunger during the summer months, when children may not have access to the free and reduced-priced school meals that they receive during the school year.

Hunger doesn’t take the summer off

Summer is a difficult time to reach food insecure children, said Ann Collins, principal associate at Abt Associates and director of the evaluation.  School lunch programs have been the traditional way to boost the nutrition of children in this situation, and summer programs like day camps have been the method for delivering these services during time when school is not is session.

 “There is a saying, when school is out, kids take a vacation, but hunger doesn’t,”​ Collins told FoodNavigator-USA.

“The traditional summer programs have had very low participation in comparison to the traditional food programs in schools,”​ Collins said. “Through this program it reached a tremendous number of those children, about 75% of eligible children, which is a very high number. And it had a substantial impact. For me this is one of the most exciting research projects I’ve been involved in.”

“Our study showed that, in the communities where it was offered, SEBTC substantially reduced levels of very low food security among children,which occurs when children’s food intake is reduced or their eating pattern is disrupted, and low food security among children, which means the quality or variety of their diet is reduced. So additional food benefits provided to families through electronic benefit transfer cards offered school-age children a concrete way of receiving meals during the summer,”​ she said.

The study measured the impact of a $60 per child per month food benefit provided to more than 66,000 children in 14 sites in Connecticut, Delaware, Michigan, Missouri, Nevada, Oregon, Texas, Washington and the Cherokee and Chickasaw Nations. Households were eligible for the special benefit if they lived in participating school districts and had children in grades pre-kindergarten through 12, and if they were certified for free or reduced-price school meals. The benefits were issued via electronic benefit transfer (EBT) cards over the summer of 2012 using states’ existing EBT systems for their regular Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) or Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children (WIC).

Improved food choices

In addition to improving the overall food security of children, the program also demonstrably improved their nutritional intake.  Simple economics—more nutritious food costs more—plays against balanced diets for children in this group.

“Children in households that received the SEBTC food benefit ate more fruits and vegetables, whole grains, and dairy products and had fewer sugar-sweetened beverages,”​ said Ronette Briefel, senior fellow at Mathematica, and co-principal investigator of the evaluation. “These are important strategies to improve children’s diet quality and also address childhood obesity.”

“This was an extremely rigorous research design. It had a very a large sample, so we can present these findings with extemen confidence,”​ Collins said.

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