Summer Is A Hungry Time For Struggling Families in Connecticut
School vacation makes summer a hungry season for many Connecticut families.
“Hunger doesn’t go on vacation,” said Susie Woerz, Plainville food pantry director.
In mid-July, Woerz put out a request for cereals, snacks and other non-perishables to restock shelves depleted by increased summer needs of the 170 households the pantry serves.
Much of the need is driven by children home from school, she said. Each student on vacation adds about 100 meals to the family food budget, to replace those provided in schools during the academic year.
“Kids are home hungry, and the demand increases, “ Woerz said.
The summer spike in tiny Plainville is reflective of what social service agencies see statewide.
“Child hunger doesn’t end with the school year,” said Peter Yazbak, state education department spokesman.
This summer, an estimated 1.7 million meals will be served by state and federal summer programs that provide food to Connecticut children when schools are closed, Yazbak said.
But those meals served in June, July and August meet just a fraction of the need, program officials say.
Only about 21.7 percent of children 18 and under who receive free or reduced-cost meals in schools during the academic year participate in summer meal programs. A national study released in June by the nonprofit Food Research and Action Center (FRAC) reported that 171,061 students received free or reduced-cost meals during the school year, compared to 34,257 fed during the summer by federally-funded programs.
Rep. Rosa DeLauro joined program leaders and providers at summer meal sites in Waterbury and New Haven last month to raise awareness about summer hunger.
DeLauro is a member of the House Appropriations Committee, which recommends funding for all federal programs including food aid and other social services. DeLauro said she was visiting sites to talk to people and learn “how do we get more kids to participate.”
“Nothing is more important than the health of our children,” DeLauro said. “Children should not be going to bed hungry in such a nation of abundance.”
School-based meals are “the number one weapon we have against hunger,” Shannon Yearwood, director of End Hunger Connecticut, a nonprofit that operates many of the state’s 650 summer meals sites.
“A lot of parents and guardians work multiple jobs and still struggle to provide shelter and food,” Yearwood said. “One unexpected expense can really hurt those families. We provide safe reliable access to food during the summer when students are not in school and getting fed.”
Program rules prohibit anyone older than 18 from getting food. On a recent Monday at Jocelyn Square Park and at Lincoln Bassett school playground in New Haven, parents and guardians watched as their children ate sandwiches, juice or milk, fruit and snacks.
Nicole Beverly, a sick, unemployed mother, watched from her older model minivan as her 10- and 4-year-old daughters ate their meals.
“This helps out, especially at the end of the month. Healthy food costs a lot,” Beverly said. “I go to the food pantry, the mobile food bank to get fruits and vegetables and whatever we need. I tell other people about everything and where to go. A lot more people need help and should go but they don’t. Pride.”
Waterbury’s Duggan School, a summer meals site in one of the city’s poorer neighborhoods, feeds about 200 children daily.
“We give breakfast and lunch,” Duggan vice principal Melissa DiGiovanni said, standing in the lunchroom near posters urging children to eat healthy, “be brave and try new foods,” and eat fruit and veggies at least thee times daily. “We are an open site. We do get lot of families from the neighborhood,” in addition to students enrolled in summer school, DiGiovanni said.
A 2018 FRAC study of hunger in Connecticut found that 176,505 households — about 12.6 percent — run out of food and lack money to buy what they need. The national average is 15.7 percent, FRAC states.
“While often hidden behind closed doors, food hardship is a serious national problem that requires a serious national response,” said FRAC President Jim Weill. “Too many people in every region, state and community have been left behind in the economic recovery from the Great Recession, and are still struggling to put food on the table.”
The Connecticut Food Bank, which annually delivers enough food for 21 million meals to the six counties it serves, sees an increase in demand in summers, executive director Bernie Beaudreau said.
The numbers at a new monthly food bank mobile pantry stop in Naugatuck tell that story. The first day in May drew 152 households. June participation reached nearly 300. In July, the program had about 500 families show up at the distribution site on Rubber Avenue.
The demand overwhelmed the program staff, who quickly ran out of food and had to give 80 rain check vouchers for families to come back a week later for to get the food they didn’t get.
“We had 10 full pallets of food and that ran out,” Beaudreau said. “Demand increases in summer. August is typically a heavy month.”
Don Bryk of Naugatuck, a 71-year-old retiree, was one of the people who came a week later to cash in the voucher.
“It helps me save a little more money for things other than food,” he said. “I’m hoping to be able to get a pair of shorts.”
Back in New Haven, Lincoln Bassett staffer Michelle Bogart told DeLauro she often sees students save part of a meal to take home for later because they don’t think there will be food at home.
“Unless we address poverty and hunger we’re not gonna get anywhere.” Bogart said. “There are a lot of people who need help.”