Are Free Lunches Enough to Combat Child Poverty in the U.S.?

School’s out for summer, but in parts of rural Tennessee, the yellow bus is still running. Only instead of delivering children to school, it’s bringing them a free lunch every day. On the outside of the bus, the familiar yellow-and-black design has been changed to read: “Kids Eat FREE!”

Think about it: with so many children in the U.S. living in poverty, schools have become the main source of food for many of them. Free-and-reduced-price meals now include breakfast, lunch, snacks and even free backpacks of canned goods, in some cases.

But all that stops in the summer.

Recognizing this problem, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) has provided an extra $400 million to provide meals during the summer. But how to get the food to the kids?

The Washington Post explains:

Governors came together to form a task force. Michelle Obama suggested items for a menu. Food banks opened thousands of summer cafes, and still only about 15 percent of eligible children received regular summer meals.

So, earlier this year, a food bank in Tennessee came up with a plan to reverse the model. Instead of relying on children to find their own transportation to summer meal sites, it would bring food to children. The food bank bought four used school buses for $4,000 each and designed routes that snake through some of the most destitute land in the country, where poverty rates have almost doubled since 2009 and two-thirds of children qualify for free meals.

Two-thirds may seem abnormally high, but as Kids Count reported last month, a shocking 23 percent of children live in poverty in this country, on average.

Tennessee actually comes in at #39 for the overall well-being of children and families, while Louisiana, Mississippi and New Mexico come in at #48, #49 and #50, respectively.

So what do the children of rural Tennessee actually get for lunch?

On the day that Washington Post reporter Eli Saslow visited, he found that each sack lunch contained two ounces of celery sticks, four ounces of canned oranges, chocolate milk and a bologna sandwich. Each meal was purchased for $3.47 and contained about 750 calories.

There are also strict rules that the USDA implemented: no seconds, no extra milks, no children taking food homeand no free meals for anyone over 18 unless they are disabled.

Here’s a snippet of what Saslow witnessed as he traveled with the yellow food truck:

On this day, what she saw at the first stop was five siblings arriving in clothes still stained from the pizza sauce they had been served on the bus the day before. “Did you get a chance to change today?” Anderson (a food bank employee) asked one of them, a 10-year-old girl. “Into what?” she said.

Next, at the second stop, a 7-year-old whose parents were both at work arrived carrying his 1-year-old sister in nothing but a diaper, spoon-feeding her juice from the bottom of his fruit cocktail cup. “She can’t eat chunks yet,” he said.

At the third stop, a high school football player pleaded for extra milk; at the fourth, teenagers fired rifles at cans up the road; at the fifth, always the most crowded, kids, parents and dogs waited in the shade under the trailer park’s only tree.

Turning a school bus into a food truck is certainly better than letting kids starve but, really, is this summer food truck program the government’s answer to childhood poverty and hunger?

And to all those Republicans who are fighting so hard to limit abortion rights for women across the country, do you actually care about those babies once they are born? Does it bother you to know what almost one fourth of the children in the U.S. are living in poverty, and don’t get enough to eat every day?

The U.S. is also a country that wastes food on a regular basis, but you will be arrested if you try and take food from a trash bin.

Banks get bailouts, Big Oil and Coal get tax breaks, and people go hungry.

What’s wrong with this picture? Where did the love go?

Photo Credit: thinkstock


Jim Ven
Jim V1 years ago

thanks for the article.

Deborah S.
Deborah S4 years ago

Nikolas K., how do you propose a 5 or 8-year-old city kid help himself? Hunting and fishing are out of the question. In the city, there's fierce competition for returnable cans and bottles. The homeless people are out there getting the good stuff while the kids are still asleep. They can get the cast-offs of the lunch-time crowd, too, while the kids are still in school.

Now cities are starting to outlaw dumpster diving for edible food. What's that about? Yes, families look for food in the garbage. Even families that are not homeless, yet. It's amazing what gets thrown in the garbage every day outside large restaurants and big grocers. Even bakeries, large and small discard breads and goodies that are more than a couple of days old.

A couple of years ago I was on my parents' balcony ... um, getting some fresh air ... yeah, that's it. I could hear a racket coming from the dumpster behind the big pharmacy that was there. After a couple of minutes I saw a girl or young woman with a partially filled large green garbage bag in one hand, haul herself over the side of the dumpster. Then I saw a young man pop up and start tossing large bags of all sorts of chips out to her. I guess they were all passed their Sell By date. When they rode off I could see they were bicycle couriers. They make less than a living wage and usually live several kids in a one room flat. Got to give 'em props for their resourcefulness.

But the younger kids still need someone to

Aud Nordby
Aud nordby4 years ago


Shelah L.
sheila l4 years ago

Free lunch maybe a starter but families need relief from agencies and a way out of poverty; a plan!

Nikolas Karman
Nikolas K4 years ago

We cannot help or save others as the only ones we can help is ourselves and as the saying goes God helps those who help themselves.

Nikolas Karman
Nikolas K4 years ago

free lunch is not the solution. I grew up the eldest of nine in a family that regularly did not know where the next meal would come from. did i starve? no I learn to be self sufficient by hunting and fishing and collecting srap metal and bottles to sell even washing cars. My father also hunted regularly and taught me to be positive and to not think of words like cant or impossible but instead taught me to look upon it as an experience to learn how to solve the problem. sure some days I went hungry at school but it was not because we had no food but because i was too lazy to prepare and take it with me as i knew i would get a better meal at school under some program etc. went well till my parents found out. I now realise that we create our experiences to learn how to forgive ourselves for creating them instead of sitting around feeling sorry for ourselves and playing out the role of martyr or victim instead of forgiving ourselves and getting on with our lives.

Sienna Joy
Past Member 4 years ago

As a single mom, I often struggled to make ends meet. My heart goes out to underfed kids, and to their (usually) hard-working parents. I'm in complete agreement with you, Amanda M. In every regard, the hypocrisy of the religious right is appalling. Stripping women of the dignity of choice while making it nigh-on impossible for low-income parents to raise healthy, strong, smart kids is the ultimate Catch-22. It's a well-known fact that malnourished children cannot learn, and so whether or not they have access to food, and the kind of food they do have, very much affects a child's ability to become educated so they, in turn, can rise out of poverty. No wonder crime becomes attractive. You have to be mightily determined and staunch of faith to overcome the odds. This story brought me tears. Thanks for sharing.

Winn Adams
Winn A4 years ago

Of course they aren't!!!

Sandi C.
Sandi C4 years ago

at least there getting one meal.

june t.
june t4 years ago

in a land of plenty....