More than 21 million children get free or reduced priced meals during the school year. But in the summer, that number drops to only three million.
The big question is what happens to all the other children. Do they get enough, and the right food, to eat?
This summer, government agencies and non-profit groups are making a massive push to get millions of meals to kids who might otherwise go hungry as part of the nationwide summer nutrition program. And they're doing some creative things to reach them.
Take rural Hopkins County, in western Kentucky. It's mostly farms and coal fields and gently rolling hills. So when school's out, the children are widely dispersed and often isolated.
That makes it a challenge for the local YMCA. It's feeding about 700 children a day this summer, mostly at central sites like camps and parks. But increasingly, it's using mobile units to get food to some of the harder-to-reach areas in the county.
One of the units is a red pick-up truck, with two Y employees in front and several coolers of food in the back. One of its first stops of the day is a Baptist church in the small town of Earlington.
Church volunteer Don Egbert is waiting inside for the lunch delivery — about 20 pork barbeque sandwiches, carrots, strawberries and milk.
No sooner is the food set out on a long table at the church, when two little girls rush in.
Kiarra and Ciara Crook, ages 7 and 8, live right around the corner. Egbert says they come to the church for lunch every day, like clockwork.
"Well, we don't have any food at home, " explains Ciara, adding that her mother works, but only gets paid once a month.
Deanna Brewster arrives next, driving a blue pickup truck, with three neighborhood kids in back. Another two are up front. Brewster says these children automatically get fed when school's in session. But, during the summer, she says, it's difficult for some kids to get even one good meal a day.
If they weren't getting these free meals, says Brewster, the kids she brought would probably be eating a pack of noodles for lunch.
"That's the truth about it," she says. "It's hard these days. "
Ed Wallace, executive director of the Hopkins County Family YMCA, has a map on his wall, where he's circled in black marker what he calls "pockets of poverty" — areas where kids not only lack money, but often transportation to get to other sites or grocery stores. Some also lack parental supervision.
"There are children who their parents are not home," he says. "I know some of the housing sites over the years where the parents have kind of locked them out and then they're just on their own."
And who knows what they're eating, if they're eating at all, he says.
In the summer nutrition program — which is funded by the U.S. Department of Agriculture — any child who shows up gets a free lunch. No questions asked. The kids just have to live in an area where more than half the children qualify for free-or reduced price meals at school. That's most of Hopkins County.
Wallace is now using four mobile routes to target some of the hardest to reach areas in the county.
"We stop, feed them, make sure they're eating and then we move on to the next site," he says.
The fourth mobile stop of the day is a subsidized apartment complex in Dawson Springs, a town about a half hour from the YMCA. About a half-dozen children are waiting in line for the red truck. Most of them are holding white plastic grocery bags.
Even though the children are supposed to eat outside at a picnic table where the food is delivered, many take some of it home for siblings, and maybe a parent.
Carrie Kovach watches as her children, ages 2, 5 and 6, unwrap their barbeque sandwiches. She says she and her husband both work, but they still struggle to pay all their bills, so the lunches help.
"'Cause food costs a lot nowadays. And feeding three kids? Yeah," she sighs.
There are similar efforts across the country this summer. Libraries are sending lunches out on bookmobiles. Food banks are delivering meals directly to the homes of needy children who can't get to another site. Cities are serving lunch at public housing projects, where parents are afraid to let their kids out alone.
Educators say when school reopens, they can tell which children ate well over the summer and which did not. Those who didn't are less focused, less ready to learn.
"Imagine if children's hospitals said, 'We're not going to be open in the summer.' If the fire department said, 'We're not going to be open in the summer time,' " says Billy Shore, head of Share Our Strength, a national food advocacy group. "It makes no sense. I mean, this is a critical service. Kids need it. It's got to be provided all year round."
The problem is, right now, the government's summer nutrition program is hit or miss. It relies on a loose network of agencies and volunteers still trying to figure out the best way to reach needy kids when they're not in school.
AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
More than 21 million children get free or reduced price meals during the school year. The programs get healthy meals to kids who might otherwise go hungry. During the summer that number drops to 3 million. There's a big push happening right now by the government and nonprofits to reach more kids while school's out. NPR's Pam Fessler traveled to Western Kentucky to report on the effort there.
PAM FESSLER, BYLINE: Hopkins County Kentucky is rural, with farms, coalfields, gently rolling hills. So, when school's out the children are widely dispersed and often isolated. And that's a challenge for the local YMCA, which is trying to help feed some of them. And that's why a red pickup truck with two YMCA workers in front and coolers of food in the back has just stopped at a Baptist Church in the small town of Earlington.
DON EGBERT: Hey dude.
UNIDENTIFIED SPEAKER: How's it going, buddy?
EGBERT: Pretty good. You?
FESSLER: Church volunteer, Don Egbert has been waiting for today's lunch delivery, pork barbecue sandwiches, carrots, strawberries and milk. The Y feeds about 700 children a day in summer, increasingly along mobile routes like this one. No sooner is lunch set out on a long table here when two little girls rush in.
EGBERT: How you girls doing today?
KIARRA CROOK: Good.
CIARA CROOK: Good.
EGBERT: Good? What you been up to?
K. CROOK: Nothing.
C. CROOK: Nothing.
EGBERT: Nothing much?
FESSLER: Kiarra and Ciara Crook are ages seven and eight. Egbert says they come here every day like clockwork.
FESSLER: How come?
C. CROOK: Well, we don't have any food at home, so.
FESSLER: Ciara looks at me like I'm a little dense. She says her mom works but only gets paid once a month. Next to arrive is Deanna Brewster, who comes with five neighborhood children for lunch. She says these kids automatically get fed when school's in session but in summer it's a different story. She says it's difficult for some children.
DEANNA BREWSTER: They have at least one good meal a day.
FESSLER: So, what would they be eating?
BREWSTER: Probably a pack of noodles, you know, I mean that's the truth about it. You know, it's hard these days.
ED WALLACE: This is a trailer park and this is another one. And then Cross Creek is a subsidized housing area.
FESSLER: Ed Wallace runs the Hopkins County Family YMCA. He's showing a map on his wall where he's circled in black marker what he calls pockets of poverty. Areas in the county were kids not only lack money but often transportation or parental supervision.
WALLACE: There are children who their parents are not home. I know some of the housing sites over the years where the parents have kind of, locked them out and they're just on their own.
FESSLER: Eating who's knows what, if at all. In this program, which is funded by the U.S. Agriculture Department, any child who shows up gets a free lunch, no questions asked. They just have to live in an area where more than half the children qualify for free or reduced price meals at school, which is most of Hopkins County. Wallace uses the mobile routes to target the harder to reach areas.
WALLACE: We stop, feed them, make sure they're eating and then we move on to the next site.
FESSLER: So, we're driving up and I can see about five or six kids, all waiting in line. We're at the fourth stop of the day. A subsidized apartment complex in Dawson Springs, about a half-hour from the Y. Many of the kids on line are holding white plastic grocery bags. They're supposed to eat here at a picnic table, where the food is delivered but truth be told many take some of it home for siblings and maybe a parent.
UNIDENTIFIED CHILD: What are these? I need two more.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Let me guess. For your sister?
UNIDENTIFIED CHILD: No, for my uncle and aunt.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: For your - how old are your uncle and aunt?
UNIDENTIFIED CHILD: One of them are 11, one of them are 14.
FESSLER: It's hard to say no. Carrie Kovach stands nearby. As her children, ages two, five and six unwrap their barbecue sandwiches. Kovach says she and her husband both work but it's hard to pay the bills. So, the free lunch helps.
CARRIE KOVACH: It does. Because food costs a lot nowadays and feeding three kids, yeah.
FESSLER: There are similar efforts across the country this summer. Libraries sending lunches out on bookmobiles, food banks delivering meals directly to children's homes, cities serving lunch at public housing projects, were parents are afraid to let their kids out alone. Educators say when school reopens, they can tell which children did not eat well over the summer. They're less focused, less ready to learn. Billy Shore heads Share Our Strength, a national food advocacy group.
BILLY SHORE: Imagine if Children's Hospital said we're not going to be open during the summer, if the fire department said we're not going to be open in the summertime. Right? It makes no sense. I mean, this is a critical service, kids need it. It's got to be provided all year round.
FESSLER: The problem is right now the summer program is kind of hit or miss. It relies on a loose network of agencies and volunteers, still trying to figure out the best way to reach needy kids when they're not in school.
UNIDENTIFIED CHILD 2: Thank you.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN 2: Chocolate or white - milk?
CHILD 2: White.
UNIDENTIFIED CHILD 3: Chocolate.
MAN 2: There you go.
CHILD 2: Thank you.
MAN 2: You're welcome.
FESSLER: Pam Fessler, NPR News.
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This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.