Summer break means higher food insecurity for children across Indiana. Nearly 9,700 kids in Johnson County — 38 percent of its public school students — have reliable access to nutritious meals thanks to free or reduced-price lunch and breakfast programs during the school year.
Yet when school ends, many of these young people struggle to get the fuel they need to thrive.
In fact, 19 percent of children and 12 percent of households in Johnson County are deemed “food insecure” — a term the U.S. Department of Agriculture defines as a socioeconomic condition of limited or uncertain access to food that supports a healthy life. And it happens in every corner of the state.
Rural areas tend to have the highest rates of food insecurity, with urban areas running a close second. Meanwhile, suburban areas usually have the lowest rates. Indiana data reflect those trends.
Rural Fayette County had the highest child food insecurity rate in the state at 26 percent, while predominately urban Marion County was at 22 percent. Suburban areas have lower rates, but even in Hamilton County, which had the state’s lowest concentration, 14 percent of children – nearly 12,000 – are food insecure.
Experts said these families often choose between having food or utilities, transportation, medical care, housing and/or education. Emily Weikert Bryant, executive director of Feeding Indiana’s Hungry, said most of the families they help buy cheaper food, get help from family and friends or sell personal property. More than a third even water down food or drinks, including infant formula.
The lack of consistent and nutritious food has significant implications for child development and well-being. The National Institutes of Health found that food insecurity affects the academic performance, body weight and social skills of school-age children. Feeding America reports food insecure kids are at higher risk for chronic health conditions, behavior problems, truancy and school tardiness.
When classes are out, these children cannot rely on the consistency of school food programs for meals that may not be provided at home. While federal food assistance programs are invaluable to low-income families to supplement their diets, Weikert Bryant notes those benefits don’t increase during school breaks when families become responsible for the meals that were provided by the schools.
So this summer, Feeding Indiana’s Hungry is teaming up with the Indiana Department of Education and local food banks to organize the Summer Food Service Program. The program coordinates locations around the state to serve meals to eligible children during school breaks.
Tina Skinner heads up the Summer Food Service Program at the department of education. She says around 80 of Indiana’s 92 counties will have summer food sites with variable service days and hours.
To find a site, call 2-1-1, visit the program’s website at www.doe.in.gov/nutrition/sfsp-parents-page, or simply text “food” to 877-877.
However, these food sites need help to operate. Most food pantries and soup kitchens have limited, if any, paid staff, making volunteers vitally important. Experts in the field report great appreciation for donated product while simultaneously noting that every donated can must be checked, sorted and inspected. Monetary donations allow food banks to leverage each dollar into multiple meals based on their ability to buy in bulk.
Those are ways in which we all can play a role in ensuring that our children and our neighbors’ children have the basic nutritional building blocks they need to grow and succeed. By working to ensure Hoosier kids have access to adequate, healthy food all year round, we can positively impact every child’s physical and mental well-being, academic achievement and future economic productivity.