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.