Article

Why Some Families Face Tough Nutrition Choices in the Summer

June 04, 2019

School meals play a critical role in helping students get the nutrients they need for growth and development and to help them achieve their full academic potential. But have you ever thought about what happens when school lets out for the summer?

Students who rely on school breakfast and school lunch lose that reliable source of nutritious foods during school vacation. These students tend to eat more low-quality foods and spend more time with screens, and as a result, many gain excess weight in summer. Food-insecure children, who live day-to-day without being sure of their next meal, are especially vulnerable. With food insecurity comes nutrition insecurity. It’s about more than just having food to survive—it goes deeper than that to having nutrient-rich foods to help them thrive.

Identifying food- and nutrition-insecure families and linking them with resources is critical. At every child health visit, pediatricians, family physicians and registered dietitian nutritionists should be asking caregivers two simple questions:

  • “Within the past 12 months, we worried whether our food would run out before we got money to buy more?”
  • “Within the past 12 months, the food we bought just didn’t last and we didn’t have money to get more?”

Pediatricians should ask the above questions at all health supervision visits. If the answer to either question is “often true” or “sometimes true,” it is a strong indication that the family is at-risk of food insecurity.

If we identify a high-risk family, what can we offer? The USDA’s Summer Food Service Program offers a solution — free, nutritious meals for kids in the summertime. The U.S. Department of Agriculture sets the nutrition standards for the summer meal program based on the nutrient needs of children. Meal patterns include milk, fruits/vegetables and grains/bread for breakfast, and milk, meat/meat alternate, vegetables, fruits and grains/bread for lunch. Milk, which is key to helping children achieve essential nutrients and better overall diet quality, is a core component of meals provided through summer feeding sites. Like most food groups, dairy foods are still under-consumed by school-aged children. If milk is not part of children’s diets on a regular basis, they likely could fall short of their daily calcium, vitamin D and potassium needs.

How can you help address food and nutrition insecurity in your community?

Pediatricians, family physicians, registered dietitian nutritionists and others can work together to:

  • Increase awareness of the important role summer meals can play in helping to nourish children and keep them healthy, not hungry, in the summer.
  • Engage and empower families and communities to embrace, promote and use the Summer Food Service Program.
  • Provide resources to help schools, sponsors, communities and the media to champion summer meals.
  • Connect families to other local resources such as food banks and pantries.

Over the last five years, the dairy community has donated more than 31 million servings of milk to children and families in need through The Great American Milk Drive and is committed to providing 50 million servings of milk to children and families in need by 2020. You can take action against hunger and help increase access to nutrient-rich foods by donating milk at www.giveagallon.com. Even a small donation can make a big impact – for as little as $5, food banks can deliver fresh gallons of milk to children and families who need it most right in their community.