At the beginning of the summer, the US Department of Agriculture announced its goal to serve 200 million meals to low-income children through the summer meals program, which is 13 million more than it served last year. The USDA is also highlighting several new ways of reaching kids in rural areas of the country.
As the summer comes to a close, I spoke with US Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack about the program’s growth and the USDA’s success in serving rural communities.
This interview has been condensed and edited for content and clarity.
The summer is still wrapping up, but do you have any information about whether the USDA has met its goal of 200 million meals?
“We won't really know that until later in the fall when the numbers are calculated and received. We're fairly confident that we've had more sponsors in more sites and that should translate into more meals. The question is how many... that's a little bit yet to be determined.”
Why is it important to continue to expand the summer meals program?
“Well there are 20 million young people who participate in our Free and Reduced Lunch program during the school year. That's the universe of young people who live in families that are no doubt dealing with the food insecurity challenges. And as a result of that, the question then is ‘what happens when school's not in session?’, ‘where do these kids access nutritious meals or have an opportunity for a decent meal?’ So it's important for us to understand that between the 20 million being served in schools and the 3.3 million or so that are currently being served by our summer feeding program, that there's still plenty of opportunity for us to expand the program to get as many kids helped as possible.”
The USDA has definitely focused expansion on creating more meal sites in rural areas of the country. Why are these populations harder to reach?
“I think it's sometimes more difficult to provide the services because there may not be access to sponsors. There may not be a congregate site where young people can easily get to. That's why we've been looking at ways in which we can potentially provide flexibility to allow for more mobile sites.”
Are there other ways the USDA has been reaching out to rural areas?
“Well we have provided an opportunity with the use of the EBT care system, essentially providing a card similar to the SNAP card in a number of piloted areas to see whether or not by providing money as opposed to a meal at a particular site, would that provide for greater food security for these youngsters during the summer months and we've seen acceptance of this and we've asked congress to consider expanding that program. Our hope is that they might consider putting more money and resource behind providing an EBT card that could be used by a young person at a grocery store or by the family to provide additional food opportunities.”