Summer meal participation plummeted last year

A new report by the Food Research and Action Center shows that meal participation among U.S. kids fell significantly in 2022 compared to the two preceding summers.
A child eats an apple in the park
Summer meal participation was lower in 2022 compared to 2021 and 2020. | Photo: Shutterstock

Participation in summer feeding programs took a downturn in 2022, according to a new report released by the Food Research and Action Center

On an average day in July 2022, just under 3 million children received a lunch through summer nutrition programs and just over 1.8 million children received a breakfast.

While this participation level was higher than that on an average day in July 2019, it was significantly lower than the average for the two Julys that followed.

“Participation in the summer nutrition programs decreased dramatically in July 2022 compared to July 2021—and was only slightly higher than in July 2019, the last summer before the pandemic,” the report stated. 

The report also ranked states’ summer meal participation by comparing average lunch participation in July to the average free or reduced-price lunch participation during the school year.

Every state saw a decrease in its average daily summer lunch participation from July 2021 to July 2022. The states with the highest participation in 2022 included New Jersey (35.3 children served in the summer for every 100 during the school year), New York (27.8 to 100), Vermont (27.6 to 100), New Mexico (22.8 to 100) and Maryland (20.5 to 100). 

FRAC has also set a goal of reaching 40 children with a summer lunch for every 100 children who received free or reduced-price lunch during the year. While nine states and the District of Columbia met that goal in 2021, no states did in 2022.

The drop in meal participation in 2022 was likely due to Congress’ delay in approving a series of summer meal waivers that expanded access by allowing summer meal programs to offer grab-and-go meals and more, the report’s authors note. The waivers weren’t available until the end of June 2022, making it hard for summer meal programs to utilize them. 

In addition, the number of Summer Food Service Program (SFSP) sponsors and sites decreased from July 2021 to July 2022.The report’s authors say this also likely stems from the delay in approving the waivers, one of which allowed SFSP sponsors to serve meals in areas that did not meet the requirement that at least 50% of students in the area be from low-income families, allowing more sites to operate.

FRAC recommends that Congress work to pass legislation that would expand summer meal access to increase participation in the following years. 

There is an active bill that would expand summer meal access for students. The Summer Meals Reaching Every Area's Child Hunger (Summer Meals REACH) Act aims to make permanent certain summer meal program flexibilities that were introduced during the pandemic, such as eliminating the low-income threshold required to operate a summer meal site.  

Another recent FRAC report revealed that a return to charging for school meals after the pandemic caused school meal participation to slip at the country’s largest school districts.



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