As Christians look to tackle childhood hunger in the United States, there are two paths leaders view as essential.
Charitable social ministries — like food pantries and summer food programs — help solve needs for those who hunger today. Plus, by working in political systems, advocates hope to reduce future hunger needs. Without such advocacy, church food pantries and other charitable groups may find themselves overwhelmed by community needs as legislators make changes to social safety-net programs.
Zachary Schmidt serves as a regional organizer for Bread for the World, a nonpartisan Christian advocacy group that has for more than 40 years advocated to end hunger. “The lack of school meals during the summer is a serious problem,” he said.
“Of all the millions of low-income children in the U.S. who receive free or reduced-price meals during the school year, only one in six of them receive a federally subsidized meal during the summer,” explained Schmidt, who leads Bread for the World’s organizing efforts in Missouri, Illinois, Minnesota and Wisconsin.
“When children are not in school, their families can struggle to afford the increased cost of groceries,” he explained. “Food pantries report that the demand for assistance increases during the summer months, as we would expect, because children are not receiving school meals.”
Schmidt added that research shows that “80 percent of children are home during the summer and have difficulty getting to [federal Summer Food Service Program] sites.” He pointed out Missouri remains “among the top 10 states with the highest levels of hunger.”
Other Midwestern states — like Arkansas and Oklahoma — also make the list.
Kasey M. Ashenfelter, director of communications for the Texas Hunger Initiative at Baylor University, agreed with Schmidt that the problem of childhood hunger is particularly evident in the summer.
“More than 15 million children live in food-insecure households in the U.S.,” he explained. “Unfortunately, these students often go without consistent meals on the weekends and holidays when school is not in session. The summer break can be a particularly difficult time for such students. Being out of school brings extra financial challenges for families as schedules have to be coordinated and childcare has to be arranged.”
He noted that the Summer Food Service Program is designed “to help families overcome the financial challenge associated with nutrition, especially in communities where the majority of children qualify for free and reduced meals.” However, few eligible students participate in the program.
Ashenfelter noted that only about 12 percent of eligible students receive the summer meals in Texas. Low participation — and thus fewer students receiving meals — comes from lack of awareness, limited access and other obstacles.
“Christians can help in a variety of ways,” he added. “They can volunteer at summer meal sites — help serve meals or provide enrichment activities. They can encourage congregations or nonprofits to host a summer meals site, specifically if they are located in an area without one. They can help spread the word about the summer meals program.”
Ashenfelter also pointed to advocacy as one way Christians can help children who live in food-insecure homes. He noted that the Texas Hunger Initiative “collaborates with agencies, organizations and congregations across the state and is always looking for new partners in our efforts to end food insecurity in Texas and in our nation.”
“They can advocate for their local schools to think creatively about how to serve meals or provide access to them all summer long,” Ashenfelter said. “Food insecurity is a very real problem facing every state and community, and Christians can be at the frontline of change, helping to raise awareness of the problem and push elected officials to action and solutions.”
Schmidt also urges Christians to become advocates for their hungry neighbors.
At Churchnet’s annual gathering at First Baptist Church in Lee’s Summit, Mo., in April, Schmidt co-led a breakout session with Doyle Sager, senior pastor at First Baptist Church in Jefferson City, Mo., on how to advocate on hunger issues. More recently, Schmidt noted some of the key legislative efforts he and his colleagues at Bread for the World are tracking.
“Many states have piloted innovative projects to reach more children during summer breaks,” Schmidt said. “These include mobile summer meal sites, backpack programs and additional money for families to buy groceries. We want Congress to provide the flexibility and support for states to operate programs and services that best meet their children’s needs.
“Two bills that address summer hunger are the Stop Child Summer Hunger Act and the Summer Meals Act,” he added.
“The Stop Child Summer Hunger Act would expand access to food during the summer months by providing ‘Summer EBT’ cards to low-income families with children, which they can use to purchase groceries,” he said. “The Summer Meals Act strengthens and expands access to existing SFSP programs by reducing red tape for public-private partnerships and providing transportation for rural and underserved areas.”
Schmidt hopes Christians will “advocate for these bills and for these kinds of changes by writing, calling, emailing and visiting their members of Congress and encouraging them to protect and strengthen provisions for summer meals.” He remains hopeful that such advocacy can make a difference for children living in food-insecure homes.
“Congress can do something about this problem this year, and Bread for the World and our members and congregations across the country are encouraging them to pass legislation that connects hungry kids with healthy meals,” he said. “This is our opportunity, and we invite you to join us in advocacy.”