Summer has arrived, and this season will help determine the outcome of Arkansas's fight against childhood hunger. Without the meals that had been available to them at school, students must rely on an entirely different system to access adequate and nutritious food. Arkansas, like many other states, is still building a feeding system to address these needs. And while we have made notable progress nationally, we are still not where we want to be.
On an average day last summer, approximately 37,000 low-income children received summer meals. This was a noteworthy increase of 16 percent compared to the previous summer. This growth dwarfed the national average, which was only half a percent. As a result, Arkansas moved up nine spots in the national rankings for summer-meal participation, and now ranks 18th. Still, the number of children we fed last summer represents only a fraction of the children who receive school lunch during the rest of year.
If we can reach more children this summer and in the summers to come, we will be helping to prevent childhood hunger and become eligible for more federal assistance for our feeding programs. As our remarkable progress last summer demonstrates, we have the know-how. Now, we must expand our network of feeding sites.
Two different departments in our State work with summer feeding programs. This year, the Arkansas Department of Education will offer feeding programs in 114 schools across 59 districts.
Meanwhile, the Arkansas Department of Human Services coordinates summer feeding sites in churches, boys and girls clubs, and other nonprofit organizations. These groups can provide volunteers to serve summer meals to children at no cost. The Summer Food Service Program is 100 percent federally funded and covers the cost of up to three nutritious meals and snacks a day for children. Arkansas DHS even provides training and technical assistance to help organizations set up and operate a summer food program. Employees can either volunteer to serve meals or be paid with money left over after food is purchased.
This network of summer feeding sites now stretches throughout 65 Arkansas counties, but that means we still have to find more churches and nonprofits to participate. There are 10 counties - Calhoun, Cleveland, Conway, Grant, Izard, Lafayette, Montgomery, Randolph, Searcy and Stone - that currently are without a single summer feeding site. Four of those counties now have applications pending, but additional participation will only make those startup programs stronger. If you or someone you know is linked to an organization that could help in one of these counties, please consider joining Arkansas's network of summer feeding.
Thanks to entities like No Kid Hungry, volunteer organizations statewide, and state agencies, Arkansas IS feeding more children, but too many are still left without adequate food. To provide meals to more children, more adults must become involved. Together, we can eliminate childhood hunger and put an entire generation on a clearer path to health and prosperity.