Arkansas has made great strides in reducing the number of hungry children in our state, and we've been recognized nationally for our efforts. Still, we have a long way to go to reach our goal of ending this crisis in the next three years. Summer is starting, and while many of us have fond memories of what that season meant to us as kids, it's actually a time of year that leaves thousands of Arkansas children more at risk for hunger and malnutrition.
While summertime provides students a break from classes, it also means losing a reliable source of nutritious food. Thousands of kids count on eating breakfast and lunch at school every day. The Arkansas Summer Food Service Program helps bridge that gap for children who live in eligible areas. They can receive the same high-quality meals during the summer as they get during the school year.
Even with this program available, too many children go without enough food. During the 2009-2010 school year, for example, as many as 200,000 children needlessly went hungry in the summer, even though feeding programs were available.
Many Arkansas families still don't know that these neighborhood programs exist, and that is partly to blame for low participation in the Summer Food Service Program. Recent research also found that some children don't participate because their parents feel stigmatized about needing the help. Other families are unable to find transportation to a food site, and some parents worry about leaving their children somewhere unfamiliar.
In the past few years, however, participation has improved. Last summer, Arkansas added 100 open summer-meal sites and increased the number of meals served by 16 percent. Still, more than one-in-four children in our State are uncertain about where they will get their next meal, and this is unacceptable. As we launch this year's Arkansas Summer Food Service Program, our goal is to connect an additional 13,000 kids to these free summer meals.
Kids who participate get more than food. Many summer meals sites offer fun through learning and recreational activities, so that young children and teens can eat a healthy meal while staying active and spending time with friends. This is so important because a lack of nutrition and activity during the summer months can set students back and put them at a higher risk for poor performance once school begins again. Hunger often leaves children more prone to illness and other detrimental health issues, including obesity.
Making sure that Arkansas's children are fed is an investment in the future of our State. We have to provide better access to nutritious food if we hope to create opportunities for success for all members of our future generations. If you or someone you know is interested in free summer meals, call 1-888-454-3427 or text "FoodAR" to 877-877. Information can also be found on the Arkansas Department of Human Services Web site. Together, we can reach our goal of ending childhood hunger in Arkansas, not just in the summer, but throughout the year.