What We Did on Our Summer Vacation: Understanding summer hunger among children in Southeastern San Diego

Summer can be a hungry time of the year for children in households that struggle with food insecurity. The Summer Food Service Program (SFSP), also known as the summer meals program, was created in the 1970s to connect children from low-income families to the critical nutrition they need during the summer and intersession breaks. The majority of the 239 sites in San Diego County are open to children ages 0-18 at no cost and with no enrollment requirements, but the participation rates tell us that large numbers of children are not accessing this needed resource.

Image courtesy Share Our Strength / No Kid Hungry

Image courtesy Share Our Strength / No Kid Hungry

According to a 2014 report published by California Food Policy Advocates (CFPA) about 80%  of children in California who rely on free or reduced-price lunches during the school year miss out on summer meals. In San Diego County, the summer nutrition gap affects 59%  of children (97,500 children) who benefit from free or reduced-price school meals.

In our 2014 report Help Them Eat at Home: Why the Federal Summer Meals Program for Kids has Chronically Low Participation and What Can Be Done about It, San Diego Hunger Coalition examined some of the built-in barriers of the program model that lessen its effectiveness to serve children in need.  

This summer, the Hunger Coalition was approached by San Diego Unified School District to see if we could help boost participation at under-performing meal sites. Thanks to a grant from Share our Strength, a national organization working to end child hunger, we were able to pilot a targeted awareness campaign in Southeastern San Diego, an area of particularly high need. Our outreach focused on five sites:  Martin Luther King, Jr. Recreation Center; Valencia Park/Malcolm X Library; Penn Athletic Field; Willie Henderson Sports Complex; and Paradise Hills Recreation Center.

Diane Moss, Executive Director of Project New Village, was an advisor on the project and helped develop our outreach strategy.

We designed and distributed 5,000 flyers to key locations such as housing developments, community centers, Head Starts, and churches.  We also ran ads in El Latino and Voice & Viewpoint community newspapers, and promoted the event through partners such as the Jacobs Center for Neighborhood Innovation and San Diego Organizing Project.

In addition to testing the oft-mentioned barrier of awareness, we wanted to expand our knowledge of the user base, so we conducted interviews with 29 parents, five summer meal site directors, a supervisor from San Diego Park and Recreation, and San Diego Unified School District’s Summer Meals Specialist. 

Here are a few things we heard from the interviews:

  • “I’m not sure why my neighbors don’t come. Sometimes it’s too hot to walk here and the bus is unreliable. Some of them may be embarrassed if their children don’t eat all of the food and you can’t take the food home, which is a problem.” – Parent at Malcolm X Library
  •  “My friend knows about it but she didn’t want anyone to see her in the line.” – Parent at Willie Henderson Sports Complex
  • “People know about it (CalFresh) but they are too scared to apply….” – Parent at MLK, Jr. Recreation Center
  •  “My son is a picky eater so he has only eaten lunch here twice.” – Parent at Willie Henderson Sports Complex
  •  “My neighbors know about it but a lot of the parents work, plus there are drug dealers in the park so they won’t let their kids come here.” – Parent at Willie Henderson Sports Complex
  • “Lack of volunteers is an issue. It would be better to serve lunch outside near the building where people can see that lunch is being served but we don’t have staff to do this.” – Site Director at Valencia Park/Malcolm X Library
  • “One of the barriers I think is the security issue in the park. There was a shooting here last week.” – Site Director at Willie Henderson Sports Complex
  •  “People have asked about free food giveaways. It’s just easier for parents to leave their children at home.” – Site Director at Paradise Hills Recreation Center

Unfortunately, our tailored local awareness campaign did not have a noticeable impact on participation. While awareness may be an obstacle, the structure of the summer meals program model remains a barrier to participation even when that obstacle is addressed.

Some of the main problems with the model are:

  • The majority of the sites’ primary users are children (grades K – 6) who must be accompanied by an adult in order to participate.
  • Parents' work schedules may not allow for them to pick children up and stay with them at the site while they eat
  • The adult is not permitted to eat so there must be someone willing to drive the child to the site on a consistent basis who cannot directly benefit from the program.
  • Sites are not open for the entire summer and lunch is for a set time (one hour) each day
  • It is not efficient or convenient to transport students twice a day or everyday

Based on what we’ve learned and observed during our studies in the field, we firmly stand behind the need for a summer electronic benefit transfer (EBT) card option in California. It is a sensible solution that will provide for students when summer meals sites are not operational and on weekends, and will provide necessary support to the families for whom this resource is inaccessible. All parents, when asked if they would use the Summer EBT option, responded affirmatively.


Summer EBT Legislation

We are monitoring two bills that are part of the Child Nutrition Act Reauthorization of 2015 that would increase access to food over the summer months by providing funds on an EBT (electronic benefit transfer) card during summer months for parents to buy food for their children. The Summer EBT Program not only reduces child hunger, but it results in children eating healthier food.  

Stop Child Summer Hunger Act


The Hunger-Free Summer for Kids Act


Please continue to follow our newsletters, Twitter and Facebook for advocacy action as these bills move through the legislature.