Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack visited a Chicago school today to encourage more Chicago-area schools and community-based organizations to participate in the U.S. Department of Agriculture's (USDA) summer meal programs to help ensure no child goes hungry during the summer months. During the school year, 21 million American children receive free or reduced price lunch in schools, including nearly 800,000 kids in Illinois--but only 11 percent of eligible Illinois children participate in the summer meal programs. Illinois is one of six states in which USDA is partnering with local leaders to make a concerted effort to improve participation.
Secretary Vilsack was joined by Food and Nutrition Service Administrator Audrey Rowe, school officials and local community leaders to discuss the importance of the summer meal programs at Chicago's James Otis World Language Academy.
"Research shows a lack of nutrition during the summer months can set up a cycle for poor performance once school begins. We're joining our partners here in Illinois and other target areas across the country to help close the nutrition gap children face when schools close for the summer," Vilsack said. "We need more successful partnerships and continuing support from state and local leaders to ensure children continue to receive nutritious meals even when school is out."
The USDA's summer meals programs, including the Summer Food Service Program and the National School Lunch Program's Seamless Summer Option, ensure that low-income children who rely on school meals can receive the nutritious food they need during the summer months so they are healthy and ready to learn when they return to school in the fall. USDA has selected Illinois as one of six target states for additional technical assistance to help improve participation in the summer meals programs. While Chicago is the third largest city in the U.S., with an active anti-hunger community, the state ranked 39th in Summer Food Service Program participation, with only 11.4 percent of eligible children participating in the program. In 2013, there were 1,624 summer meal sites in Illinois, with 147 sponsors. USDA hopes to assist the state in increasing the number of sites and sponsors by 10 percent. In Illinois, the deadline to become a summer meal sponsor or register as a site is June 15.
Last year, the summer meals programs saw a historic increase of 7 million more meals served compared to the previous summer, exceeding USDA's target of 5 million additional meals. This year USDA hopes to exceed 10 million more meals nationwide. The key factor to serving more children summer meals this year will be expanding the number of sites open for feeding children. Community partners are needed to serve as sponsors of sites or provide meal sites to give more children access to healthy food this summer. The deadlines to become a summer meal sponsor vary by state, and begin as early as April 15.
Along with Illinois, other states with high levels of food insecurity and/or low program participation receiving additional technical assistance from USDA include: Alabama, Mississippi, Missouri, Nevada, and Texas.
USDA continues to work with First Lady Michelle Obama on the Let's Move! initiative, which is helping to promote healthy eating and physical activity and supports the health of American families. Through the combined efforts of USDA and its partners, the United States is beginning to see progress and improvements in the health of our Nation's children.
USDA's Food and Nutrition Service oversees the administration of 15 nutrition assistance programs, including the Summer Food Service Program, the National School Lunch Program, and other child nutrition programs, that touch the lives of one in four Americans over the course of a year. These programs work in concert to form a national safety net against hunger. Visit www.fns.usda.gov for information about FNS and nutrition assistance programs.