Innovations in Summer Nutrition Programs

While it is no secret that K-12 operators do exceptional work to provide nutritious meals each school year, a chronic reality sets in when classes go out of session. Summer can be the most food-insecure season for many low-income students across the country, contributing to a decline in learning retention and development.


How often do we take a beat and ask ourselves the “Why” behind the decisions we make for our organizations and the people we influence? If this global pandemic has taught us anything, it has revealed the value of stretching capacities of what we once believed was possible and taking the time to innovate limited or fruitless patterns.


In the K-12 segment, many operators find themselves in a frustrating cycle of planning for and serving students nutritious meals for breakfast and lunch during the school year while understanding that structure and consistency drop off for many during the summer, often due to food insecurity. This lack of structural consistency with nourishing meals is a key contributor to the summer slide phenomenon, which is particularly detrimental to students of low socioeconomic status (SES).


K-12 operators and those who influence the segment should consider the impact that nutrition and lack thereof during the summer months make on learning retention and development in their local districts to be better equipped in addressing this distressing phenomenon.


What Is the Summer Slide?

The summer slide refers to the rate of regression at which students retain academic knowledge during the summer months. A slight degree of summer slide is typical among students across backgrounds and SES. With two to three months outside of a typical academic and social routine, it is natural for students to forget some of the elements on the periodic table or each step it takes to multiply fractions, but the rate of regression can vary abnormally due to external factors such as access to quality nutrition. The academic achievement gap between high- and low-income students is about 30-40% higher than it was a generation prior… 9 out of 10 educators also spend several initial weeks of classes reteaching subjects from the year prior.


Another seminal meta-analysis elaborates further, finding that students lose at least one month of learning over the summer, with the most profound impacts on mathematics. This is pragmatic, considering that students practice reading skills more organically and frequently in comparison to mathematics. Realistically speaking, students in this generation are more likely to practice reading with captions on TikTok videos or content on social media for hours than working on timetables in their spare time. A 2020 study appearing in the American Educational Research Journal reviewed 200 million student test scores and found that the average student loses 17-28% of retention in English language arts and 25-34% in mathematics, with the most conspicuous learning loss taking place in the developmental years of K-3.


The degree to which summer slide is impacting K-12 students is much more costly than anyone would like to admit, especially for students of families who experience financial hardship. 43% of low-income families say it’s harder to make ends meet in the summer. Students spending more time at home can put added strain on families financially. Satisfying hunger can often put nutrition at a lower priority, which prompts families to turn to inexpensive, highly caloric foods with minimal nutritious substance to make ends meet.


When students grow accustomed to well-balanced nutrition at a free or reduced cost provided by the National School Lunch Program only to lose consistent access for 2-3 summer months, holistic retention and development suffer. When children experience malnourishment and hunger, learning is difficult and deprioritized.


Current Solutions and Limitations

Many K-12 operators are aware that a considerable number of students experience hunger and malnutrition over the summer, which exacerbates the degree of learning loss. Food insecurity is linked to detrimental health, well-being, and learning consequences in both short- and long-term measures, which manifests as poor educational and academic performance.


This is no new issue. Educational researchers have been studying the contributing factors to summer learning loss dating back to 1906. Fortunately, systems have been set in motion to understand, mitigate, and resolve summer learning loss and chronic hunger.


US Department of Agriculture (USDA) funding for the Summer Food Service Program equips community leaders with resources to create summer meal delivery sites across the country. An additional $8.8 billion of federal funding was allocated to child nutrition programs last summer to address the economic impact of the pandemic. Although certainly helpful, there are limitations and implications to these program initiatives.


Only 16% of children who might need the summer meals programs are reached. The program specifies that these summer meal sites can be set up in places where at least 50% of children are eligible for free and reduced meals during the school year. Being temporary in nature, the sites themselves and all the logistics that go into operating them must be built from scratch and then disassembled at the peak of each school year. This creates time and resource barriers such as resubmitting applications, recruiting new staff, and renewing licenses. All of these unaddressed challenges result in a ratio of 36 summer food programs to every 100 school lunch programs.


Other major challenges to Summer Food Service Programs include transportation barriers and inadequate marketing strategies, which limit the reach of families who are aware that these programs even exist. For example, the Summer Food Service Program in Oakland, California, offers free lunch and afternoon snacks to children 18 years and under at schools and libraries across the city. Katie McLane, an educator with over 30 years of experience, worries that many families are unaware of the resource.


Why You Should Care about the Solutions to Summer Slide

K-12 education is all about equipping students with the right tools to help them evolve into intelligent, empathetic, and healthy human beings. This cannot be the mission only 9-10 months out of the year if we want to see these results become active and sustainable in our communities of students.


According to one report by No Kid Hungry, if all children receiving free and reduced meals during the school year were able to access nutritious meals over the summer, school systems could potentially save $50.6 billion in reteaching expenses, which equates to about 10% of the current total U.S. federal spending toward K-12 education. Results could also yield an increase of up to 5.3% more high school graduates compared to schools that do not offer a summer nutrition program.


Call to Action: Marriner Marketing K-12 Think Tank

At Marriner, we believe that the big world changes originate from small, consistent, and deliberately placed steps moving in the right direction. We are all about collaboration and sparking conversations that can lead to secure systems and a more secure world. Feeding America has proposed a two-part initiative to streamline the regulations that make establishing summer feeding sites difficult on a congressional level while simultaneously granting states the flexibility to envision and implement their own additional strategies. While there is work being done on the macro level to address summer slide and hunger, we believe it yields great strength to think globally and act locally.


With that in mind, we would like to invite anyone who feels called by the cause of solving summer nutrition insecurities of K-12 students to vocalize interest in a Marriner Marketing-led “Think Tank.” If we can generate enough interest from K-12 operators, industry leaders, school administrators, marketers, nonprofit organizations, or anyone who would like to participate, we could initiate the first step to help make the summer slide phenomenon a thing of the past for generations to come.


Because when our youth succeeds, we all do.


At Marriner, we understand the intricacies of loyalty marketing for food, beverage, hospitality and tourism brands. Ready to elevate your customer experience and foster loyalty? Contact David Melnick to talk more about our agency’s integrated marketing solutions.




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