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School meal break pushes millions of children toward holiday hunger

Food-insecure families will lose about 320 million free and reduced-cost meals over the winter break, charity warns

Millions of food-insecure households will lose a crucial form of support during this year’s holiday season, according to the nationwide food bank network Feeding America. Public school closures for winter vacation will leave as many as 21 million children without access to the free or reduced-price meals they rely on during much of the year.

Households with children are disproportionately likely to be food-insecure, meaning they lack the resources to provide all household members with "enough food for an active, healthy life," according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Whereas the USDA said 14.3 percent of all households were food-insecure in 2013, it applied the term to nearly 20 percent of households with children.

For those families, public school lunches and breakfasts form a crucial part of the food assistance safety net. More than 21 million children are enrolled in free or reduced-price lunch programs at schools nationwide, and more than 10 million children also receive free school breakfasts. But when schools close for vacations, those meals go away — for weeks at a time, in some cases.

Most public school winter vacations last for about 10 school days; given that those schools distribute about 32 million free or reduced-price meals per day, Feeding America estimates that this year's vacation amounts to 320 million lost meals for children in low-income households.

"A lot of our schools have breakfast — which is really great when school is in session — and, of course, lunch," said Pamela Irvine, president and CEO of the regional food bank Feeding America Southwest Virginia. "So when the children aren't in school, the family suffers economically trying to provide those additional two meals every day."

Food banks such as Irvine’s are working to make up as much of the gap as they can. During holiday break it distributes two weeks' worth of food to roughly 3,500 children around southwest Virginia. Every child receives two backpacks, with each one containing about a week's worth of meals.

Many food banks do something similar during the summer, when most children spend months out of school. But they don't have to do it on their own: The USDA's Summer Food Service Program (SFSP), which is funded federally but administered locally, helps bridge the gap during summer vacations.

Winter break is shorter, but no such federal program exists to mitigate the loss of meals over that vacation. On top of that, food-insecure households usually get hit with other difficult-to-manage expenses during the winter months.

"Families really are burdened with additional expenses," said Rhonda P. Chafin, executive director of the Second Harvest Food Bank of Northeast Tennessee. Those additional expenses include rising utility costs as families try to keep their houses warm through the winter months.

"They're having a hard time with rent and with utilities, because it's that heat-and-eat time right now," Chafin said.

Second Harvest Food Bank, like similar organizations all over the country, has seen a precipitous increase in demand for emergency food services over the last few years. That increase was largely a byproduct of the Great Recession, although recent cuts to food stamps appear to have exacerbated the problem.

Chafin said her food bank serves about 5,000 more people per month than it did around this time last year. According to Irvine, the number of meals served to food-insecure children during the summer months more than doubled between 2013 and 2014.

The squeeze on family budgets often doesn't leave much room for any attempt to have a normal holiday, Chafin said.

"They're just worried about their basic items, providing a holiday meal for their families," she said of her clients. "I'm sure there's thoughts about pine trees or presents, but they have so much to think about just when it comes to the basic necessities."

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