In Colorado, almost 400,000 students are eligible to receive free or reduced-priced school lunches during the school year, but only about nine in 100 of those students are getting lunch during the summer, according to a new report published by a national organization that studies hunger.
Some families may not know the program exists in the summer, while others may face transportation barriers, said Taylor Washington, community engagement manager for Hunger Free Colorado. Colorado added 190 additional sites between 2013 and 2018, which resulted in 160,000 more meals being provided throughout the state, she said.
Earlier this year, Colorado also passed a bill that eliminated a co-payment for reduced-price lunches. Starting next school year, school officials can't charge eligible students for lunch. In order to qualify for free lunch during the school year, a student’s family has to make less than 130 percent of the federal poverty level — $32,630 per year for a family of four.
The report, titled “Hunger Doesn’t Take a Summer Vacation,” was published by the Food Research and Action Center and said that while Colorado improved its ranking to 40th from 2017 to 2018, participation in the rest of the country decreased.
“I do think that most states could be doing better and should be doing more,” said Crystal FitzSimons, school programs director at the Food Research and Action Center. “Losing participation last summer I think really speaks to the need to redouble our efforts to make sure that kids have access to meals during the summer months.”
This year, Congress is looking at reauthorizing the summer program’s federal funding, which happens every five years. Two new bills, the Stop Child Summer Hunger Act and the Summer Meals Act of 2019, would improve and expand access to summer meal programs across the country.
If passed, the Stop Child Hunger Act would provide families who have eligible children with a debit-like card that would allow them to purchase food during the summer, making it easier for families who live far from a lunch site or who don’t have reliable transportation.
Nationally, about one in seven eligible students receive free lunches in the summer months. In Colorado, it’s fewer than one in 10 students.
“That’s a really big gap for hunger. We see childhood hunger spike a lot in the summer,” Washington said. “Healthy, consistent access to food is really important for a child’s development and for their social and emotional wellbeing.”
To find a free summer youth meal distribution site near you, click here. Or, call the Hunger Free Colorado Resource Hotline, toll-free at 855-855-4626 to get connected to food resources across the state.
Editor's note: This story has been updated to clarify the free-lunch expansion legislation passed earlier this year.