You might think of summer as a time for family cookouts and lazy days at the lake, but for 13.1 million American kids who are food insecure, the reality is very different.
For them, being out of school doesn't mean hot dogs and s'mores; it means not being sure when they're going to get their next meal.
"During the summer, six out of seven kids no longer have access to school meal programs," explains Stacey McDaniel, national spokesperson for anti-hunger initiatives at the Chicago-based YMCA of the USA (Y-USA). "If you're a parent with two kids, that's 10 extra meals — on the same budget."
The result? Many children go without. A fact that cookbook author and anti-hunger advocate Leanne Brown is working to change.
"Children shouldn't be hungry," she says. "Their brains can't grow properly; they can't have a chance at life like they should."
For years, Brown's been a crusader for healthy food on a budget. Her cookbook, Good and Cheap, which offers tips and recipes for healthy eating on $4 a day (the typical amount received by someone on food stamps), was released in 2014.
So far, she's given away more than 100,000 hard copies of the book, and one million copies of the free PDF version.
This summer, she's spreading awareness about child hunger — and the resources available to help — by teaming up with the Y-USA.
"I really hope we can get the word out more to empower families to eat in the way they deserve," Brown says.
The Y-USA's Summer Food Program, funded by a grant from the Walmart Foundation, was launched in 2011. This year, it'll provide an estimated 7.2 million snacks and meals to 300,000 children across the United States.
The organization is hosting a series of free events where families receive dinner, a lecture and cooking tips from Brown, plus a signed copy of Good and Cheap.
Two events have already been held in Boston and Rochester, N.Y., and two more are scheduled in Nashville and Indianapolis in early August.
Teaching families to cook, Brown believes, will help them eat quality food — even on an extremely low budget.
"It's really difficult to feed your children with very little money, but it's still possible," she says. "And if we embrace cooking, we can do it really well. It's something these families can do when they go home, and hopefully throughout the rest of their lives."
"It's about more than just a meal," adds Y-USA's McDaniel. "It's about nourishing the whole child and providing opportunities so they can reach their full potential."
Danikka Moses is an educator for Boston Public Schools and the mother to three boys, ages 19, 6 and 4. Along with them, her mother, niece and nephew, she attended Brown's Boston event.
"I'm always looking at how I can feed my kids healthy foods and snacks," she says. "Food is so expensive, but the idea it doesn't have to be is very appealing. If I can make cuts someplace and still provide good food, I can make sure the money is spent more efficiently for my family."
At the event, Moses says, Brown provided tips for helping kids eat healthier, with a heavy focus on fruits and vegetables.
"Lots of people were asking questions about how to make Brussels [sprouts] taste better," Moses says with a laugh.
Like everyone else at the event, Moses received a free copy of Good and Cheap, which she started reading when she got home.
"I kept looking at things and thinking 'I should try that,'" she explains. "Like, there are five different variations on oatmeal; that would be a great breakfast for my family, because I like things that are healthy, but easy, too!"
Perhaps more important than the events is the attention that Brown's name is bringing to the issue of child hunger — an issue many people ignore.
"If you're not struggling with it, it's not something you think about," says Y-USA's McDaniel. "We get in our bubbles, and we don't see what's happening outside of our homes."
Even if you don't think it's happening near you, you're probably wrong.
"Because we've heaped so much shame on parents in this country, it's hard to see it," says Brown. "It's something they've been treated poorly for — and as a result, it's this really big hidden problem."
Which is why Jillien Meier, a director with Share Our Strength's No Kid Hungry campaign, says it's up to everyone to spread awareness about the resources — like the Y-USA's — available to those in need.
"The number one thing we need to do is help more families learn about summer meal programs," she says. "One simple way to find a local site is to text the word 'FOOD' or 'COMIDA' to 877-877. Enter your zip code, and you'll receive a text with information about the nearest sites serving free summer meals."
For Brown, her collaboration with the Y-USA has been a welcome way to not only spread awareness about child hunger, but also to directly help others.
"Food can be so mundane — just something we have to eat three times a day," she says. "It can become a chore; it can become stressful. So any time I can help food become the joy it ought to be is such a wonderful thing."
Susan Shain is a freelance writer and digital nomad who covers travel, food and personal finance. She's written for CNN, Travel + Leisure, The Washington Post and more.
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