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Lunch at the Library: Healthy Eating, Hunger, and the Need for Summer Meals
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Healthy Eating, Hunger, and the Need for Summer Meals

The Need for Healthy Meals Over the Summer
The Need for Summer Enrichment and Learning Over the Summer
Delicious and Nutritious Edible Tools for Maintaining a Healthy Brain
Food and Mood
The Importance of Breakfast
Additional Resources

The Need for Healthy Meals Over the Summer

Food insecurity increases during the summer break without access to the nutrition provided by the National School Lunch Program.1

Good nutrition, particularly in the first three years of life, is important in establishing a good foundation that has implications for a child’s future physical and mental health, academic achievement, and economic productivity. Unfortunately, food insecurity is an obstacle that threatens that critical foundation. According to the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), 16.7 million children under 18 in the United States live in households where they are unable to consistently access enough nutritious food necessary for a healthy life. Although food insecurity is harmful to any individual, it can be particularly devastating among children due to their increased vulnerability and the potential for long-term consequences.2

During the school year, thousands of low-income students eat free or reduced-price meals at schools. But when school is out and kids aren’t receiving that food, children face higher risks for hunger and malnutrition. Summer meals help to fill that gap, so kids have the nutritious food they need to stay healthy all summer.3

Hunger & Poverty Statistics

  • In 2011, 50.1 million Americans lived in food insecure households, 33.5 million adults and 16.7 million children.2
  • In 2011, 14.9 percent of households (17.9 million households) were food insecure.2
  • In 2011, 5.7 percent of households (6.8 million households) experienced very low food security.2
  • In 2011, households with children reported food insecurity at a significantly higher rate than those without children, 20.6 percent compared to 12.2 percent.2
  • In 2011, households that had higher rates of food insecurity than the national average included households with children (20.6 percent), especially households with children headed by single women (36.8 percent) or single men (24.9 percent), Black non-Hispanic households (25.1 percent) and Hispanic households (26.2 percent).2
  • Food insecurity exists in every county in America.2
  • Children may gain two to three times as much weight during the summer than during the school year.1

The Need for Summer Enrichment and Learning Over the Summer

  • All young people experience learning losses when they do not engage in educational activities during the summer. Research spanning 100 years shows that students typically score lower on standardized tests at the end of summer vacation than they do on the same tests at the beginning of the summer (White, 1906; Heyns, 1978; Entwisle & Alexander 1992; Cooper, 1996; Downey et al, 2004).4
  • Low-income youth may fall further behind in academic skills during the summer break, experiencing greater “summer learning loss” than their higher-income peers and widening the achievement gap.1
  • Most students lose about two months of grade level equivalency in mathematical computation skills over the summer months. Low-income students also lose more than two months in reading achievement, despite the fact that their middle-class peers make slight gains (Cooper, 1996).4 More than half of the achievement gap between lower- and higher-income youth can be explained by unequal access to summer learning opportunities. As a result, low-income youth are less likely to graduate from high school or enter college (Alexander et al, 2007).4
  • Children lose out on more than academic knowledge over the summer. Most children—particularly children at high risk of obesity—gain weight more rapidly when they are out of school during summer break (Von Hippel et al, 2007).4
  • Parents consistently cite summer as the most difficult time to ensure that their children have productive things to do (Duffett et al, 2004).4

Delicious and Nutritious Edible Tools for Maintaining a Healthy Brain

  • Let’s Go Nuts. A study published in the American Journal of Epidemiology suggests that a good intake of vitamin E can help prevent cognitive decline, particularly in the elderly. Nuts, along with leafy green vegetables, asparagus, olives, seeds, eggs, brown rice and whole grains, are a great way to boost your vitamin E intake and keep your brain in tiptop shape.5
  • Berry Good. Evidence collected at Tufts University suggests that the consumption of blueberries may be effective in improving or delaying short-term memory loss.5
  • Fish Is First Class Brian Food. A protein source associated with a great brain boost is fish -- rich in omega 3 fatty acids, essential for brain function and development. These healthy fats have amazing brain power: higher dietary omega 3 fatty acids are linked to lower dementia and stroke risks; slower mental decline; and may play a vital role in enhancing memory, especially as we get older.5
  • Super Spinach. Rich in the antioxidant lutein, spinach is thought to help protect against cognitive decline.7
  • Beets Boost Brainpower. Scientists at Wake Forest University determined that natural nitrates in beets can increase blood flow to the brain, thereby improving mental performance.8
  • Water Wise. When a person becomes dehydrated, their brain tissue actually shrinks. And several studies have shown that dehydration can affect cognitive function. Dehydration can impair short-term memory, focus and decision-making.7
  • Pumpkin Seed Power. Just a handful of pumpkin seeds a day is all you need to get your recommended daily amount of zinc, vital for enhancing memory and thinking skills.5
  • Brainy Broccoli. Be sure to eat your broccoli. It is a great source of vitamin K, which is know to enhance cognitive function and improve brainpower.5
  • A+ For Avocados. Avocados are choc full of monounsaturated fats that improve vascular health and blood flow to the brain.7

Food and Mood

A healthy diet can help improve mood. Complex carbohydrates, such as whole-grain breads, cereals and pastas, increase the release of serotonin, helping children feel calmer. Natural foods containing tryptophan, such as turkey, eggs, soy, oats and nuts, can help children relax and improve their mood.9

Many Americans, students in particular, eat a diet high in trans fats from processed foods. Researchers recently looked at the relationship between individuals, their depression levels and trans-fat intake. The researchers found there was a 48 percent increase in the risk of depression among those who consumed the most trans fats. Students can reduce their risk for depression by reducing or eliminating the amount of processed foods they eat.6

The Importance of Breakfast

School breakfast can have a positive effect on a child's performance in class, on standardized tests, and on their future. Students who eat a school breakfast:

  • Have on average 17.5% higher math scores10
  • Attend an average of 1.5 more days of school than their meal-skipping peers10
  • These students with increased attendance and scores are 20% more likely to continue on and graduate high school. High school graduates earn on average $10,090 more annually that their non-diploma-holding counterparts and are significantly less likely to experience hunger in adulthood.10
  • Eating a healthy breakfast is associated with improved cognitive function (especially memory), reduced absenteeism, and improved mood in children and teens.12,13,14
  • Kids that eat a healthy breakfast have improved short-term memory, attention and acquisition skills. Foods at the top of researchers' brain fuel list include high-fiber whole grains, nuts, dairy, and fruits.7,11
  • Proper nutrition promotes the optimal growth and development of children.15

Additional Resources

USDA Summer Food Service Program: established to ensure that low-income children continue to receive nutritious meals when school is not in session. Free meals, that meet Federal nutrition guidelines, are provided to all children at approved SFSP sites in areas with significant concentrations of low-income children.

California Summer Meal Coalition: a statewide network that is combating hunger and obesity by helping California's children in need gain access to free and healthy meals through the USDA's summer nutrition programs.

Food Research and Action Center (FRAC): the leading national nonprofit organization working to improve public policies and public-private partnerships to eradicate hunger and undernutrition in the United States.

National Summer Learning Association: connecting and equipping schools, providers, communities, and families to deliver high-quality summer learning opportunities to our nation's youth to help close the achievement gap and support healthy development.

1. ”Why Summer Meals,” California Summer Meal Coalition, accessed April, 11, 2013,
2. “Hunger and Poverty Statistics,” Feeding America, accessed Aril 12, 2013,
3. “Free Summer Meals For Kids,” Coalition Against Hunger, accessed April 11, 2013,
4. “Know The Facts,” National Summer Learning Association, accessed April 11, 2013,
5. “10 Foods to Boost Your Brain Power”, BBC Worldwide, n.d., accessed April 6, 2013.
6. “Eating Poorly Can Make You Blue: Trans-Fats Increase Risk of Depression, While Olive Oil Helps Avoid Risk,” Science Daily: 26 Jan. 2011, accessed April 6, 2013.
7. “Brain Food: Super Foods To Improve Your Cognitive Function” Huffpost Healthy Living, 9/19/2012, accessed April 6, 2013.
8. Kadey, Mathew, MS, RD “The 11 Best Foods for Your Brain” Shape Magazine, n.d. accessed April 1, 2013.
9. Corleone, J., “The Benefits of Eating Healthy Foods As A Child”, August 11, 2011, accessed April 2, 2013.?
10. Kinsman, K., “Study Finds School Breakfast is a Key to Future Success” CNN’s Schools of Thought Blog, March 4, 2013, accessed April 7, April 2, 2013.
11. Nazario, B.. MD, “Brain Foods That Help You Concentrate,” Web MD, August 5, 2011, accessed April 7, 2013.
12. Hoyland, A., Dye, and Lawton. “A Systematic Review of the Effect of Breakfast on the Cognitive Performance of Children and Adolescents.” Nutrition Research Reviews 2009;22:220–243.?
13. Taras, H. “Nutrition and Student Performance at School.” Journal of School Health 2005;75:199–213
14. Rampersaud, G.C., Pereira, Girard, Adams, and Metzl. “Breakfast Habits, Nutritional Status, Body Weight, and Academic Performance in Children and Adolescents.” Journal of the American Dietetic Association 2005;105:743–760.
15. Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee. “Report of the Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee on the Dietary Guidelines for Americans, 2010, to the Secretary of Agriculture and the Secretary of Health and Human Services.” Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Agriculture; 2010.

Lunch at the Library is a project of the California Library Association and California Summer Meal Coalition and is funded by a grant from the David and Lucile Packard Foundation.

Photo: Palm Springs USD.