Recent studies of the largest of the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s food and nutrition programs (including the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program and the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children) have found that they are successful in reducing household food insecurity. However, much less is known about the impact of other smaller nutrition programs. This study investigates the impact of the Summer Food Service Program (SFSP) and related Seamless Summer Option (SSO) (collectively, “summer meals”), which offer free meals and snacks over the summer to children living in predominantly low-income areas. Though the summer meals programs operate as entitlements, both rely on sponsoring agencies to operate sites where children can receive meals; sponsors may choose to operate SFSP sites in eligible areas, and since 2004, schools that participate in the National School Lunch Program and School Breakfast Program during the school year can continue to offer these programs over the summer through the SSO. Though participation in summer meals programs should reduce food insecurity in low-income households by offsetting food costs and by helping households to smooth consumption, there is only scant empirical evidence regarding their impact.
The need for research assessing the impact of the summer meals programs is further underscored by participation rates. Compared to the roughly 21.5 million children who participated in the National School Lunch Program in a given month in 2013, only about 3.5 million participated in the SFSP and SSO. In light of this sizeable participation gap, expanding participation in summer meals programs could meaningfully reduce food insecurity among low-income households with children, if research demonstrates the effectiveness of these programs.
The typical survey data sources often used to measure the impacts of the USDA’s nutrition programs do not ask about participation in the SFSP or SSO. Thus, in using 2011 administrative data from the State of California and surveillance data on a representative sample of Californian households from the 2011 California Health Interview Survey (CHIS), this study examines whether geographic accessibility of summer meals sites is associated with household food security among a sample of low-income households with children.
Geocoding was used to measure the driving time between the home addresses of CHIS respondents and the locations of summer meals’ sites in California. Using these estimates of driving time, three measures of accessibility were developed:
- Driving time to the nearest summer meals site,
- The number of sites reachable within 30 minutes, and
- An accessibility score for each CHIS respondent.
The accessibility score is superior to the other two measures of accessibility because it accounts for the spatially distributed supply and demand for summer meals sites, discounting the value of summer meals’ sites that are farther away from CHIS respondents or that are less responsive to levels of demand in nearby areas. As such, the accessibility score was the preferred measure of accessibility. In multiple regression analyses, this study examined the association between all three measures of accessibility and low and very-low food security among CHIS households with children with incomes below 200 percent of the Federal poverty line. Subgroup analyses examined the same relationships by the age of children in the home (any children ages 0 to 11 or only adolescents ages 12 to 17) and by urbanicity (urban and second city or suburban and town/rural as defined by the Nielsen Urbanization Model.).
Descriptive findings indicated that CHIS respondents tended to live close to summer meals sites. On average, the nearest site was reachable within about 4.5 minutes. On average, there were roughly 160 sites reachable within a 30-minute drive from CHIS respondents’ homes, though for about 5 percent of the sample, no sites were accessible within that amount of time.
Analyses using household food insecurity as the dependent variable found that minutes to the nearest site and accessibility score were not associated with food insecurity in the full sample or any subsample. However, in the full sample, among households with younger children, and those living in urban areas or second cities, each additional 100 sites reachable in 30 minutes were associated with a significant decrease of about 0.010 in the probability of household food insecurity. In analyses of very low household food security, among households with only adolescents, an increase in the number of minutes to the nearest site was associated with a significant decrease in probability of very low food security, but there were no comparable findings for the full sample or any other subgroup. For the full sample, a 100-unit increase in the accessibility score was associated with a significant decrease of 0.028 in the probability of very low food security. This association was also apparent for households with younger children (-0.026) and among low-income families living in suburban or town or rural areas (-0.049). The number of sites reachable within 30 minutes was not significantly associated with very low food security for any group.
As one of the few studies to examine the SFSP and SSO, this study provides initial evidence about the effectiveness of these programs. The most reliable results (those attached to the accessibility score) suggest that access to summer meals sites was associated with decreases in the probability of very low food security among households with children, an association that was replicated among households with younger children and those in suburban or town/rural areas. Thus, the study provides evidence that expanding access to summer meals may be an effective mechanism for reducing food insecurity. Research should continue to assess the SFSP and SSO to better understand their impact and to provide evidence to policymakers and program staff.