It should go without saying, but every Oklahoma child should have access to nutritious meals. No child should go hungry, nor should they have to eat unhealthy foods — which can stunt their physical and mental development — simply because those foods are cheap and readily available.
Unfortunately, this is exactly what is happening for roughly one-in-five Oklahoma kids, who are classified as “food insecure.” The high prevalence of food insecurity is why school free and reduced-price lunch programs are so important; the school cafeteria is literally the only reliable source of healthy food for many low-income children. Of course, that also means that many children are cut off from those nutritious meals during the summer months when school is closed.
To fill that void, the Oklahoma State Department of Education administers some Summer Nutrition Programs, which provide healthy meals during the summer months and, at some feeding sites, offer educational and enrichment programming. These programs are a great way to fight hunger while also reducing summer “learning loss,” a backwards academic slide that many students experience over their summer breaks.
A new report by the Food Research and Action Center evaluates the availability and access to Summer Nutrition Programs in all 50 states and the District of Columbia, and paints a very mixed picture for Oklahoma. The report, entitled “Hunger Doesn’t Take a Break” is available in its entirety at: frac.org.
Putting the bad news first: Oklahoma is dead last in the country, and has been for the past four years, when it comes to the percentage of children participating in Summer Nutrition Programs who also benefit from the National School Lunch Program. In the District of Columbia, which leads the nation, 34.5 percent of students receiving free school lunches also benefit from Summer Nutrition Programs. In Oklahoma, that falls to just 5.5 percent. Simply put, a huge number of Oklahoma students who rely on school lunches for healthy meals are falling through the cracks during the summer months.
Obviously, a ranking of 51 out of 51 is bad news, but there is a silver lining to this cloud. The same report found that Oklahoma had the nation’s third-highest increase in summer meal participation from 2017 to 2018. In July of 2018, approximately 570 summer meal sites served over 16,000 Oklahoma kids with free meals daily. We are starting at the bottom of the pile, but we are getting better quickly and there is reason to be optimistic that trend will continue.
One of the ways the state can improve its ranking is simply by spreading awareness of this program and its availability, which is where readers of this column can lend a hand. Make sure your friends and family with school-age children know about Summer Nutrition Programs and that ALL children and teens under 18 can benefit from them.
Another way to expand access to summer nutrition sites is for the state to seek out willing partners who can help manage them. For instance, OICA is working to jumpstart a collaborative effort between willing senior nutrition sites to expand their meal-offerings to children. Intergenerational feeding programs have been suggested by federal entities and healthcare professionals as a way to increase healthy interaction between senior citizens and young people. The partnerships could also lead to new sources of federal revenue for the sites. Representative Toni Hasenbeck, R-Elgin has requested an interim study to be conducted by the Oklahoma House of Representatives regarding this topic, and we certainly hope her request is approved.
There are 425,000 Oklahoma kids who eat free and reduced-price school meals. All of us can do our part to ensure they are getting the healthy food they need during the summer months.