A bologna sandwich. Celery sticks. Canned oranges and chocolate milk. It’s hardly a feast, but don’t tell that to the children for whom this meal makes all the difference.

The experience of a food bank running a summer lunch program for needy children in rural Tennessee shows that more ways must be found to feed the millions of children who go hungry when schools end.

The Washington Post’s Eli Saslow recently told the story about a converted school bus that travels the hills of Appalachia in Tennessee to take food to needy children. It was a heart-rending portrait, made all the more poignant by the fact that the need it depicted exists in every part of the United States.

A recent study by the nonprofit Feeding America ranked the District of Columbia second in the nation for child food insecurity, defined as not having access at all times to enough food for healthy living. The group estimates that one in four children in the nation experiences food insecurity.

The problem becomes most acute in the summer. The Agriculture Department, which administers federally supported child nutrition programs, estimates that 21 million low-income children participate in free or reduced-price breakfast and lunch programs during the school year.

That number shrinks to between 2 million and 3 million served by the USDA’s summer meals program when school is out of session. The long-recognized gap has given rise to new initiatives, supported by additional federal funds, that seek to overcome the obstacles preventing children from getting proper nutrition.

Hence the bus in Tennessee that takes food to children in rural areas who can’t get to meal sites. Other places keep elementary schools open year-round or use parks as gathering places to serve low-income students or hand out backpacks with canned goods. Still others use ice cream trucks to dispense meals.

Most promising are programs being piloted by the USDA that cut through the rigmarole of regulation and overhead by giving additional resources in the summer to families through the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (food stamps) or women, infants and children program.

School breakfast and lunch programs were born of the realization that proper nutrition is not only important for children’s health but also vital to their ability to learn.

It’s a point sadly made by the teacher’s note sent home with one student in Tennessee: “Easily distracted by other people eating.”

It’s awfully hard to learn when all you can think about is how hungry you are, and deprivation of proper nutrition in the summer sets children up for academic failure once school starts.

The $3.47 per meal to feed a child in Appalachia with bologna sandwiches and celery sticks is money well spent — and a program worth expanding.

Editorial by The Washington Post

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