An initiative of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation

Summer Food Service Program

Preventing food insecurity and weight gain during the summer months


September 6th, 2022


Summer meal programs are a lifeline for millions of children from families with low income who live in underserved and rural communities. Many children who rely on summer and school meals programs struggle with hunger or food insecurity, meaning they don’t have consistent access to the foods they need to be healthy and active. In 2014 and 2015, 84% of food-insecure households with school-age children accessed free- or reduced-price lunches.

And research finds that food insecurity1 and weight gain2 both increase during the summer months, particularly among Black and Latinx children, and children who are overweight. That’s in large part because, during the school year, kids are more likely to have access to healthy school meals3 and fewer unhealthy snacks. They also have more opportunities for structured, safe physical activity in the form of recess and physical education classes–and fewer sedentary activities like watching TV and playing computer games.

The COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated these issues, keeping many kids out of school, and without the support and resources schools offer, for more than a year. Early research is showing the impact this has had. In one study4 conducted in the Philadelphia area, the obesity rate among kids ages 2 to 17 increased by almost 2 percentage points between January 2019 and December 2020, with the largest increases among Black and Latinx children.

The pandemic dealt an economic blow too, with many families left not knowing whether or how they would put food on the table. At the onset of the pandemic, an estimated 29.3% of households with children experienced food insecurity, more than double that of the previous year. As we begin to climb out of the crisis, researchers remain concerned about the long-term effects of the COVID-19 pandemic on food insecurity.

School meals tackle hunger and help keep kids healthy all summer long 

Each year, up to 30 million students nationwide take part in the National School Lunch Program and about 15 million participate in the School Breakfast Program, both of which are administered by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA).

To help address child hunger and food insecurity during summer, USDA operates two programs: the Summer Food Service Program (SFSP) and Seamless Summer Option (SSO). SFSP allows schools, summer camps, Boys & Girls Clubs, and other participating programs to offer free, nutritious meals in income-eligible areas. Meals are distributed at common sites like schools, community centers, parks, faith-based organizations and summer camps. The SSO allows streamlined continuation of the meals served during the school year.

Prior to COVID-19, these summer meals programs did not reach every eligible child. In 2019, only 14 percent of kids who received free or reduced-price lunch during the school year also participated in the SFSP.

A variety of barriers keep kids from participating in summer meal programs, including transportation issues and location of meal sites. But during the pandemic, a combination of USDA support, federal COVID-19 waivers, and innovative strategies developed by school districts helped many programs pivot to the summer feeding model during the school year.

Changes could make meals healthier and ensure they reach more kids

While many physical school buildings were closed to students, staff prepared meals and distributed them to families at a variety of locations, similar to the summer feeding approach. Strategies like grab-and-go meals, meal delivery services, providing multiple meals at one time, and serving bulk foods helped some families and kids get the nutrients they need during this critical time.

Early evidence shows that these innovations are working. In 2020, the SFSP served nearly 1.3 billion meals5 to children and teens, a record amount and almost 9 times more than in 2019.

But difficulties remain. Many summer feeding sites reported challenges with procurement, finances, and staffing during the pandemic. And while nutrition standards for school meals were updated a decade ago, those for SFSP are out of date. Experts recommend implementing stronger nutrition standards for the program, including increasing the variety and serving size of fruits and vegetables (and limiting the frequency with which juices can be used to meet those requirements), adding restrictions for fat content and flavored milk, limiting added sugar in yogurt and cereals, limiting sodium, and adding whole grain requirements.

Despite the lack of strong nutrition standards for SFSP, many schools seized opportunities throughout the pandemic to find new ways to support kids and families with healthy meals. Their challenges and successes can help inform policy changes and other strategies for strengthening food programs and reducing barriers that keep many children from participating.