School's Out For Summer

When the Ad Council convened focus groups not long ago to help prepare a series of public-service announcements on child hunger, there was a fairly unanimous response from the participants about the subject. Not here. Not in America. If there were, we would know about it. We would read about it in the paper, we would see it on the news. And of course we would stop it. In America.

Is it any wonder that the slogan the advertising people came up with was "The sooner you believe it, the sooner we can end it"?

It's the beginning of summer in America's cement cities, in the deep, hidden valleys of the country and the loop-de-loop sidewalkless streets of the suburbs. For many adults who are really closet kids, this means that their blood hums with a hint of freedom, the old beloved promise of long, aimless days of dirt and sweat and sunshine, T shirts stained with Kool-Aid and flip-flops gray with street grit or backyard dust.

But that sort of summer has given way to something more difficult, even darker, that makes you wonder whether year-round school is not a notion whose time has come. With so many households in which both parents are working, summer is often a scramble of scheduling: day camps, school programs, the Y, the community center. Some parents who can't afford or find those kinds of services park their vacationing children in front of the television, lock the door and go to work hoping for the best, calling home on the hour. Some kids just wander in a wilder world than the one that existed when their parents had summers free.

And some kids don't get enough to eat, no matter what people want to tell themselves. Do the math: during the rest of the year 15 million students get free or cut-rate lunches at school, and many of them get breakfast, too. But only 3 million children are getting lunches through the federal summer lunch program. And hunger in the United States, particularly since the institution of so-called welfare reform, is epidemic. The numbers are astonishing in the land of the all-you-can-eat buffet. The Agriculture Department estimated in 1999 that 12 million children were hungry or at risk of going hungry. A group of big-city mayors released a study showing that in 2000 requests for food assistance from families increased almost 20 percent, more than at any time in the last decade. And last Thanksgiving a food bank in Connecticut gave away 4,000 more turkeys than the year before--and still ran out of birds.

But while the Christmas holidays make for heart-rending copy, summer is really ground zero in the battle to keep kids fed. The school-lunch program, begun in the 1970s as a result of bipartisan federal legislation, has been by most measures an enormous success. For lots of poor families it's become a way to count on getting at least one decent meal into their children, and when it disappears it's catastrophic. Those who work at America's Second Harvest, the biggest nonprofit supply source for food banks, talk of parents who go hungry themselves so their kids can eat, who put off paying utility and phone bills, who insist their children attend remedial summer-school programs simply so they can get a meal. The parents themselves are loath to talk: of all the humiliations attached to being poor in a prosperous nation, not being able to feed your kids is at the top of the list.

In most cases these are not parents who are homeless or out of work. The people who run food banks report that most of their clients are minimum-wage workers who can't afford enough to eat on their salaries. "Families are struggling in a way they haven't done for a long time," says Brian Loring, the executive director of Neighborhood Centers of Johnson County, Iowa, which provides lunches to more than 200 kids at five locations during the summer months. For a significant number of Americans, the cost of an additional meal for two school-age children for the eight weeks of summer vacation seems like a small fortune. Some don't want or seek government help because of the perceived stigma. Some are denied food stamps because of new welfare policies; others don't know they're eligible, and none could be blamed if they despaired of the exercise. The average length of a food-stamp application is 12 often impenetrable pages; a permit to sell weapons is just two.

The key to the success of the school-lunch program has been, of course, that the food goes where the children are. That's the key for summer programs, too. Washington, D.C., has done better than any other city in the country at feeding hungry kids, sending fire trucks into housing projects to distribute leaflets about lunch locations, running a referral hot line and radio announcements. One food bank in Nevada decided to send trucks to the parks for tailgate lunches. "That's where the kids are," its director told the people at Second Harvest.

We Americans like deprivation that takes place far from home, so we can feel simultaneously self-congratulatory and safe from the possibility that hard times could be lurking around the corner. Maybe that's why our mothers told us to think of the children in Africa when we wouldn't clean our plates. I stopped believing in that when I found myself in a bodega with a distraught woman after New York City had declared a snow day; she had three kids who ate breakfast and lunch at school, her food stamps had been held up because of some bureaucratic snafu and she was considering whether to pilfer food from the senior center where she worked as an aide. Surely there should be ways for a civilized society to see that that does not happen, from a simpler application for food stamps to a decent minimum wage. But wishing don't make it so, as they say in policy meetings, and proposals aren't peanut butter and jelly. Find a food bank and then go grocery shopping by proxy. Somewhere nearby there is a mother who covets a couple of boxes of spaghetti, and you could make her dream come true. That's right. In America.