Summer and fun: two words that go hand-in-hand, especially when you’re talking about kids. However, summer break looks very different for many children. For millions of children from low-income households across the U.S., summer months mean no access to school meals, which may sometimes be the only nutritious food available. And even more children will have less food on their table this year because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
For summer 2021 and 2022, the USDA has launched a new summer food program that will help all low-income children of all ages have nutritious meals and snacks.
School Meals Help Keep Kids Healthy
During the school year, many schools provide students with access to meals through federal school meal programs like the National School Lunch Program and the School Breakfast Program. These programs are run by the U.S. Department of Agriculture and state agencies, who reimburse schools that provide healthy meals to kids.
Kids who participate in school meal programs eat more whole grains, milk, fruits, and vegetables during mealtimes, and have a better overall diet. Also, eating breakfast at school is linked with fewer school absences/better attendance rates and better test scores.
Through June 2022, free school meals will be available to all children, regardless of household income, due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Food for the Summer
Though many children from low-income families receive nutritious meals through federal programs during the school year, more than 80 percent have far less access to food programs over the summer. That means these families can lose up to 10 meals per week per child.
For summer 2021 and 2022, the USDA will extend summer food programs for lower income children who qualify. The following will be enrolled automatically:
- Kids under 6 who qualify for Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program benefits
- Kids who receive free or reduced-price lunch
Parents or guardians will receive P-EBT cards in the mail from their state agencies in late spring. Specific arrival time may vary from state to state. The cards can be used to buy fruit, vegetables, meat, dairy, breads, cereals and some other foods.
The summer food program, funded through the American Rescue Plan, will provide about 34 million children around $375 (roughly $7/weekday) for the 10 weeks they are out of school during the summer.
Healthy Diet: Healthy Child
Healthy meals are important for adequate growth and development of children and adolescents. Nutritious foods also prevent many health conditions such as obesity, heart disease, type 2 diabetes, some cancers, and dental issues like cavities.
Kids typically eat what is available to them at home, so it is important to keep a healthy home environment and offer healthy foods as often as possible Here are a few tips for preparing healthy meals at home:
- Offer a variety of fruits and vegetables. Aim for 5 servings a day by working them into all meals and snacks.
- If using canned vegetables, be sure to strain and rinse them before cooking to reduce sodium content.
- If using canned fruit, be sure it is packed in 100% fruit juice rather than syrup. This will help reduce intake of added sugars.
- Choose whole-grain breads and cereals. This helps kids get more fiber in their diet.
- Limit fat.
- Avoid fried foods and choose healthy cooking methods like baking, broiling, grilling, roasting, and steaming.
- Choose low-fat or non-dairy products.
- Eat less fast food and snacks like chips and candy.
- Prepare food in healthy oils such as avocado or olive oil.
- Avoid sugary drinks.
- Skip the soda and sugary fruit drinks.
- Serve water and low-fat milk.
- Eat a variety of foods high in protein like low-fat cheese, Greek yogurt, eggs, beans, lentils, and lean meats, poultry, and fish.
It’s okay to have “once-in-a-while” favorite snacks that are less healthy, so your kids do not feel deprived, but limit these treats to no more than two times per week.
Help is Available
Are you a parent or guardian looking for summer food service program sites near you? Find a summer site in your community using the Summer Meal Site Finder mapping tool. You can also text “Summer Meals” to 97779 or call 1-866-348-6479 to find a site near you.
Learn if your child is eligible for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program.
Discover more food and nutrition tips for kids and teenagers at KidsHealth.org.