You don’t need to go to Myanmar or Mozambique to find poverty: prior to the coronavirus outbreak, one in seven American children couldn’t be sure of getting enough to eat without free meals for kids being available. This figure may by now have risen to one in four – an incredible statistic in what is supposed to be the richest country in the world.
To make matters worse, many children eat enough but of the wrong kind of food. Nearly one in five kids is obese, mostly those found in low-income households, due to consuming meals heavy on fat and sugar. This places them at greater risk of contracting numerous diseases, including diabetes and some types of cancer. Furthermore, about 1% of American children are chronically malnourished – they may be eating enough calories, but often almost exclusively in fast-food form. They are, in other words, starving even though they’re not losing weight; in extreme cases, this may cause their organs to shut down.
These are some of the problems the National School Lunch Program is meant to address. Recognizing, among other things, that proper nutrition is essential for good academic performance, this federal initiative aims to serve over 30 million healthy lunches per day, including by meeting special requirements like dairy-free meals for kids who need them. Families who are in tight financial straits generally get these for free or at least at a huge discount.
The catch, of course, is that this program doesn’t operate over weekends and school vacations. There were some (hit and miss) efforts to get free meals to kids to where they needed to go while schools were closed due to social distancing, but families are more or less on their own while school is out. With both (or one solitary) parents still occupied at work, spending hours each week on meal prep may not be possible. Money will generally be no less tight than before, so ordering in isn’t a great idea: as a rough guide, $5 per day per child over 65 days comes to $325 you probably have better uses for.
There is good news, though: free summer meals for kids are indeed available if you know where to look for them. In some cases, these are served directly to any child under 18 who shows up; sometimes, these are government assistance programs for which you have to sign up. The important point is that these options exist: don’t let your children go hungry just because you didn’t want to explore alternatives to meals served at school.
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Food Stamps, or SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program)
Many people have trouble during the summer months, during which a third to half of the total calories your child relies on in the form of school meals disappear. If this is the case, though, you’re probably not exactly flush with cash during the rest of the year. Assuming you qualify, getting assistance with essential purchases even when free meals for kids are available can be a big help.
During the current crisis and at least until September 30, 2021, benefits under this program are expanded to reflect the financial pressures so many households are struggling under. If you haven’t already, you should apply for SNAP in the state where you live. Eligibility requirements vary but are generally based on your liquid reserves (i.e. the contents of your savings and checking accounts) and gross income.
The benefits you receive can be exchanged for a wide variety of staple foods, though not other types of groceries or fast food. While the amounts you’ll receive aren’t exactly huge, this frees up cash for other purchases. Depending on the state in which you live, joining the SNAP program can also give you access to numerous free educational opportunities including those covering healthy eating and rejoining the workforce after a period of unemployment.
The Pandemic Electronic Benefit Transfer Act
Fortunately for busy parents, enrolling in the P-EBT is far less cumbersome than its name would suggest. As part of the American Rescue Plan Act, these benefits have been extended through the summer of 2021. This applies to all children who were eligible for free or reduced-price school lunches during the last month of school, but didn’t qualify for EBT funds due to having access to a meal service at that time.
Though this is a federal initiative, you may need to apply through your state government if your child is not already enrolled in SNAP. Funds are distributed in the form of a prepaid debit card you can use at participating retailers – as with food stamps, this can only be used to purchased qualified food items. Depending on which state you live in, benefits amount to about $125 per month per child, which is certainly worth getting if you’re having trouble affording groceries.
USDA Meals for Kids
The US Department of Agriculture is about more than planting corn. Preserving the environment and its natural resources, enforcing food safety standards, developing rural communities, and – finally – getting food to where it’s needed also make up part of its responsibilities. As it happens, they even offer free summer meals for kids under 18 years of age, including those who are homeschooled.
In order to manage the final stage of distribution, they’ve partnered with a variety of local organizations including libraries, churches, schools, and community centers. In the past, meals were served on-site, so children had to physically visit one of the locations you can find by using this map or dialing 1-866-3-HUNGRY (1-866-348-6479). Due to the current situation and until further notice, however, pre-packaged meals for several days in advance can now be picked up by parents without exposing their kids to the danger of infection.
Free Summer Meals for Kids from No Kid Hungry
Among many other functions, the No Kid Hungry organization strives to raise awareness of the difficult situation many families face when schools close down during summer. On a more practical level, they also help to coordinate the efforts of thousands of charities and community organizations that offer free meals for kids during this time and throughout the rest of the year.
To find out if any of these operate in your area, you need only text the word “FOOD” to 877-877 and supply your ZIP code. People living in rural areas should certainly look into this option: in addition to fixed locations serving meals, some operate delivery services and even free food trucks. This expands free meal programs to children whose working parents can’t drive them to a place where free meals for kids are available.
There is a significant overlap between the options you can find through No Kid Hungry and the USDA service mentioned above. In many cases, the USDA reimburses the operators of the volunteers operating these facilities; this also means that you can be assured of them meeting certain standards of training, safety, and cleanliness.
Calling on Food Banks
Aside from those organizations that provide prepared free summer meals for kids, many nonprofits specialize in distributing canned, dried, and other non-perishable foodstuffs to families in need. Some of them, notably through Feeding America’s Backpack Program, take the time to package these into nutritious kits children can prepare themselves. If transport is a problem, you may also be able to find a “school pantry” catering to hungry students on or near the school premises itself or ask about delivery vans circulating in your neighborhood.
As these food banks are generally run by volunteers from the community and differ in the amount of resources they’re able to call on, not all can provide these services. Some may not offer gluten- or dairy-free meals for kids or prioritize giving food to people facing particular challenges. They are a great option for any family going through a financial emergency, though, so you should certainly see if you have one near you.
Get Free Food by Couponing
Scouring your local newspaper for coupons, clipping them, filing them, and eventually presenting them at the store may seem like a lot of work…because it is. Getting your coupons online, however, is fantastically easy and can save you a ton of money especially when you combine them with cashback and store apps.
These discounts apply mainly to branded foods – think cereal and canned goods. You can therefore use coupons to stock up on non-perishables cheaply and use the savings to buy more fresh fruit and vegetables. One word of warning, though: buying something you don’t need for cheap is still a waste of money.
Free Birthday Meals for Kids
No matter how bleak your finances are, every child deserves to enjoy a little special something once a year. You may not be able to throw a birthday party with all the trimmings, but a small celebration is probably within your grasp.
In general, restaurant freebies require you to spend some money on an adult meal or use rewards points you’ve built up over previous months. This isn’t always the case, though: some outlets are a little more generous, especially now when many parents are at their wits’ end.
- Baskin Robbins will give you a free small ice cream in return for signing up with their loyalty program.
- Is your child a reader? Members of the Barnes & Noble Kids’ Club can visit one of their cafes for a free birthday cupcake.
- The Old Spaghetti Factory offers free birthday meals for kids as well as a free dessert every half birthday – i.e. six months later. This offer is only available to kids under 13, though.
- Should your child be older than that, Applebee’s welcomes them to their store loyalty program with a free appetizer plus a complimentary birthday treat.
- If a hearty breakfast seems like just what your kid needs, joining Denny’s rewards program on their behalf will get them a free Grand Slam meal. Each adult entree costing over $6 also entitles you to a free kids’ meal.
Finding Free Summer Meals for Kids
One of the hardest things a parent ever has to do is explain to their children that their family simply can’t afford all of the things they’d like to. It’s one thing when you’re talking about a new Xbox; admitting that you’re struggling to feed them while school is out can be devastating.
Still, as they say, necessity is the mother of invention. With a little bit of effort and creativity on your part, there’s no need for your children to go hungry during the summer. Free meals for kids are available if you look for them. If you have special needs – you can only accept vegetarian or dairy-free meals for kids, or it’s impossible for you to pick up food during office hours – the situation becomes more difficult, but you should still be able to find a way to get by.
However dim your financial situation may seem, you are not alone. The SNAP program, for instance, provides assistance to over 40 million Americans. Even if you’ve never thought of asking for government aid before, you’d be a fool to miss out this summer, and there are numerous local opportunities for free summer meals as well.