More than 287,000 Arkansas children rely on free or reduced price school breakfast and lunch programs. However, for one in four Arkansas children, summertime means that they can no longer depend on school meals. They either don’t eat at all or make unhealthy food and beverage choices during the summer.

Good nutrition on a regular basis is essential for children to grow and develop properly. It helps prevents childhood illnesses, chronic conditions and promotes healthier adults. Doing without adequate food during the summer makes it harder for children to catch up when the school years starts in the fall. Children’s bodies can’t take a vacation from nutrition during the summer.

Twenty-seven percent of Arkansas children live in poverty and are “food insecure.” This means they are uncertain of where or when they will find their next meal. About 25 percent of Arkansas households with children reported times during the past year when they did not have enough money to buy food, making Arkansas third in the nation for “food hardship.”

Here are a few options for summer nutrition you should know about. There are hungry kids in almost every neighborhood, maybe even children you know. You can help them find the food they need for healthy minds and bodies.

USDA Summer Meal Sites

The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) offers free summer meals to children 18 years of age and younger across Arkansas when they go to an approved summer meals site. These meal sites can be in schools, churches, community centers and other places that are safe for kids and teens. The nutritious meals are free to the children and paid for by the USDA.

Many sites offer educational and recreational activities children will enjoy. Parents do not need to apply to the program to get a free summer meal for their children. The program does not interfere with other benefits they may be receiving. They can simply bring their child to a summer meals site in their community for a healthy meal.

To find a USDA-authorized Summer Meal Site in your county use one of these options:

  • Visit this website for an interactive map that shows meal sites near you.
  • Call toll free 1-866-348-6479 (1-877-842-6273 for Spanish) and a live operator will ask your address and give you a list of sites.
  • Text FOOD to 877 877. You will be asked your Zip Code and receive a list of sites in your area.

SNAP

The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) – formerly call Food Stamps – provides low-income Americans with food they need to feed their families. About one in six Arkansans uses SNAP. About 90 percent of SNAP users are families with children, living on less than $24,000 a year for a family of four. The average SNAP benefit is $115 per person, per month. Most Arkansans (67%) used SNAP less than two years. For families with children, the median stay on SNAP is one year. Single people without dependents, who can work, can only use SNAP for three months, every three years.

SNAP benefits are delivered monthly to eligible people through electronic debit cards that are used to buy groceries. These cards are programmed to allow the purchase of food but deny things like non-food items, cigarettes or alcohol.

A program called Double Up Food Bucks increases the amount of fresh produce available to low-income Arkansans. It matches SNAP benefits spent at 18 participating farmers markets across the state. If a family spends $10 in SNAP benefits at a farmers market, they get an additional $10 to buy more locally grown fruits and vegetables. Additionally, it helps support local farmers who sell to farmers markets. Funding is provided jointly by the USDA and local support.

Eligibility for SNAP is based on income and assets, ability to work, citizenship and if there are children or elderly people in the home. To find out if you quality, call your Department of Human Services county office where you live or go here. You can also apply online at this website. You may also apply by calling toll free 1-800-482-8988.

Local hunger relief agencies

Arkansas has six food banks that are at the heart of the network of hunger relief organizations. They serve as giant storehouses for food and other relief items that are distributed to hunger agencies such as local food pantries, soup kitchens and homeless shelters. These agencies are located in schools, churches, senior centers and other community gathering places. The food is distributed at no cost of people who cannot buy enough food to feed themselves or their families. To find a location in Arkansas near you go here.

Summer Cereal Drive

Since 2000, television station KTHV and the Arkansas Foodbank have collected breakfast cereal to give to hungry children during the summer months. Last year, 330,000 boxes of cereal were donated and Foodbank officials estimate that fed children throughout central and southeast Arkansas through February. They say 500,000 boxes are needed to feed hungry Arkansas children for a year. June 22 is the last day to donate. Call the Arkansas Foodbank at 501-569-4316 for delivery information.

AFMC has participated in this community project for more than 10 years. Last year, AFMC employees donated more than 100 boxes of cereal and the company made a cash donation to the drive.

Volunteer

If you or your family would like to help hungry children to thrive, do better in school and lead healthy lives, call 501-399-9999. Find out how you can give of your time and resources to make a difference. Or, send an email to the Arkansas Hunger Alliance at info@arhungeralliance.org with VOLUNTEER in the subject line. Include your name, contact info and email address.