For many students in Florida, summer vacation means finally getting out of the classroom and away from tests and homework. But for some, the Summer also means figuring out where the next meal will come from. Now there are efforts underway to address hunger in North Florida—especially at times when a major food program—the school—is no longer in session.
In Leon County’s Apalachee Elementary school cafeteria, a group of children have arrived just in time for lunch. On the menu are hamburgers, 'tater tots, milk- white or chocolate, and a small plastic cup filled with diced pears. One by one, the kids take their lunch and file out into the dining area. It’s a scene that you’d usually see in the middle of the school year—when class is in session. But in this case, it’s the middle of the summer.
“They always have this delicious food," says elementary schooler Ca'Maya Smith. She’s participating in a summer school program at Apalachee. She says she loves learning about Native Americans and her favorite thing is the art activities. But the food is definitely a bonus. Ca’Maya says she knows many other students who, unlike her, go hungry during the summer.
“It kind of feels sad to me, because they don’t have anything. And if they don’t come to the school, they don’t get anything to eat," she says.
Summer Hunger is something school districts around the state have been working to combat. During the school year more than 1.6 million Florida children participate in the federal free and reduced school lunch program. But during the summer, only about 14 percent of them show up to designated free food sites spread across the state.
A report from the Food Research and Action Center, or FRAG, shows summer food programs around the nation are under-used, and Florida is leaving $20 million in federal support for the program on the table. Those numbers are improving.
“There’s a huge gap between the number of kids that qualify for free and reduced lunch during the school year, and those that are accessing free meals during the summer time," says FRAG's Signey Anderson.
Anderson says part of the problem confronting states is funding. Shrinking budgets have led to cuts in services like the summer food program. Other problems include where sites are located such as being in local churches or YMCA’s, instead of schools.
The lack of access to food for some low-income students compounds an already fragile situation. Research shows that over the summer, most students have lost about a month’s worth of learning by the time they report back to school in the fall. This problem is worse for low-income students, and Anderson says it’s even worse for those that go hungry.
“We think there’s a huge connection there between the learning gap and hunger. If you can’t sit down and concentrate because you’re hungry, you aren’t going to do very well in school or on tests.”
“It’s a terrible thing to consider a hungry child," says Becky Liner, a member of the Tallahassee First Baptist Church. It's one of the sponsors of A Full Summer, a food packaging event made up of a group of local churches and Second Harvest of the Big Bend. The groups donate time, money and food for people in need. And the need is real. According to a 2014 Feeding America one-in-five Leon County residents are considered food insecure. More than 100,000 Big Bend residents don’t know where or when their next meal will come, according to that same report.
“All of us have been blesses enough to not worry about whether we can feed our own children. But I think there’s a community here in Tallahassee that we consider all the children our children," Liner says, "and we want to take care of our community’s children.”
The Full Summer group will be putting together meals on June 4th at Godby High School. The Florida Department of Agriculture coordinates a program called Summer Break Spot—where kids can get free breakfast and lunch throughout the Summer. The Summer Break Spot program is coordinated through the Florida Department of Agriculture, and it uses sites like local churches and community centers, with sites across the region.
*This story was originally published in 2013. It has been updated to include new information.
**This story was produced as part of a partnership between WFSU and the Tallahassee Democrat. Coverage continues this week on Morning Edition.