WASHINGTON (AP) — For a lot of kids, the sound of school's final bell signals fun and freedom. But it leaves many students wondering from where their next meal will come.
"It's counterintuitive for most Americans. We think of summertime as a carefree time for most of us and our kids. But summertime is the time of year when a child within the borders of the U.S. is much more likely to go hungry than any other time year," says Kevin Concannon, undersecretary for food nutrition and consumer services at the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
Of the 21 million kids in the U.S. who receive free and reduced-price lunches at school, only 3.5 million participate in a summer meal program. That leaves a gap of 15 million or 16 million children who most likely don't have access to regular meals in June, July and August, the USDA reports.
"They are the group of children most at risk," Concannon says. "When those schools are closed . that source of daily nutrition isn't available to students through the school."
Food insecurity — a lack of consistent or reliable access to healthy and affordable food — isn't just a national problem; it's one that hits close to home.
The District of Columbia has one of the nation's highest rates (30 percent) of children living in food-insecure households, Feeding America reports. According to Census Bureau data, this means approximately 32,000 children in the nation's capital often don't know when or how they will get their next meal.
About 16 percent of children in Virginia (299,600) and 19 percent in Maryland (259,330) are food insecure.
Limited or infrequent access to healthy food has an impact on a child's health, educational and social developments.
Children who are food insecure are more likely to be at risk for chronic health conditions. It also can prevent them from engaging in school and social activities.
"When I travel to schools . I hear from building principals and classroom teachers. They can tell, when school starts up again in the fall, which kids have had access to healthy, predictable foods all summer versus those who have lived in much more unstable food situations over the course of the summer," says Concannon.
Kids who eat well are less fidgety, are less likely to fall asleep in class and make fewer trips to the nurse's office, Concannon says.
"It makes a real, immediate difference. We know, over time, for their development, (regular meals) is much better for them," Concannon says.
To ensure that students have access to meals in the summer, community organizations, local nonprofits and for-profit companies set up and sponsor federally-funded meal sites in cities throughout the country.
Last year, summer meal sites in the District served about 1.3 million meals, says Alexandra Ashbrook, director of D.C. Hunger Solutions.
According to the Food Research and Action Center's annual report on summer meal trends, the District was the top performing "state" in its program, reaching at least one in four low-income children in July. Ashbrook says the District has been the leader for nine years.
"In D.C., our average daily participation was almost 23,000 students each day in July," she says. "D.C. definitely has room to grow because over 45,000 children eat school lunch on average each day, but it does a lot better than most other states."
Washington's summer meal sites are sponsored by the city Department of Parks and Recreation. Anyone younger than 18 can go to a department site to receive breakfast and dinner, and many of the sites include programs for youth throughout the day.
"It's a model where you not only bring the food, but also involve kids in enrichment programming — which is obviously the best model," Ashbrook says.
Information from: WTOP-FM, http://www.wtop.com