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Summer Nutrition Affects "Learning-Loss"

This week we’ve been hearing about Summer-Learning Loss – the tendency to forget things over summer vacation – and what it means for the learning of low-income students. Today NHPR reports during the summer many kids lose access to the free-and-reduced lunch program, and that can have very real implications for how they learn.

During the school year a quarter of New Hampshire’s students qualify for free and reduced lunch. During the summer the number of kids getting those  federally subsidized healthy lunches, drops to less than 2 percent, according to the Food Resource Action Center.

14-year-old Daniel Coulter is one student who loses access to free healthy lunch over the summer.

Daniel Coulter: I eat a lot of food, I know I don’t look like it but I eat a lot of food.

And his mom, Kristal Coulter says her pocketbook feels it.

Kristal Coulter: Basically you know through the year in the school we’re so used to not feeding them lunch it kinda hurts the budget when school gets out.

But the Coulters are getting a little help this summer from a Laconia program called Got Lunch.

Announcement: good morning folks, welcome to week five!

Every Monday during the summer a couple dozen volunteers gather in the basement of the congregational church in Laconia. They take cans of tuna, bunches of bananas and enough lunch supplies for five meals for each family they serve, and sort them into reusable grocery bags.

Some of the food is donated, while the rest purchased at a food bank with donated money. Volunteers deliver bags of groceries to nearly 450 Laconia children and their families.

When kids lose access to free and reduced lunch, the worry is that they’ll go hungry, but paradoxically it isn’t the only worry.

Huggins: Interestingly that’s led to a bigger obesity problem because they’ve lost the structure of those school meals and left on their own and unsupervised are making some poor health choices in what they are feeding themselves.

The director of the National Summer Learning Association, Gary Huggins, says studies show kids who lose their free and reduced lunch during the summer are more likely to gain weight rapidly over vacation.

Got Lunch is certainly aware of that problem: their meals are up to the USDA guidelines for a healthy school lunch. The families who benefit from Got Lunch, like the Coulters, definitely notice the healthy fare.

Kristal Coulter: The kids are eating, way healthier than they would have been, without Got Lunch. Daniel Coulter: I love carrots, I love ‘em a lot, especially with barbeque sauce, put together… so good!

Laconia Superintendent Bob Champlin has been championing getting healthy food and practices into schools. He says, extending that work into the summer, is simply a no-brainer.

Champlin: You can literally see what a brain that looks like that is malnourished from a student who is malnourished from a brain that’s nourished. That’s like a slam dunk.

He says research has shown that kids who eat better, learn better, which he saw first-hand when a group of kids went to the Polar Caves with a summer program.

Champlin: And you know what they ate breakfast before they went to the polar caves, they had a snack in the polar caves, they had lunch when they came back, and they had an afternoon snack, so those 60 kids are stimulated are invigorated, and I guarantee you those kids will be ready to learn.

Laconia is an especially high poverty area of the state: two thirds of its students qualify for subsidized lunches.

The manager of Laconia Middle School’s food service, Dianne Oullette, sees the problem first hand during the school year. In the summer she takes a couple dozen bag lunches over to a local low-income housing complex every day.

Oullette: It’s great because when the children see me it’s like yay the lunch lady’s here and they come running, and I have anywhere from 15 to 22 children sitting and having a picnic.

And Got Lunch, which started in Laconia, is rolling out sister organizations in seven other New Hampshire towns, and one in Massachusetts.

But the scope of the problem is much bigger than the 447 families Got Lunch serves. There are more than 40,000 students who receive free or reduced lunches during the school year, but don’t during the summer.

The challenge for education and nutrition advocates will to get those students into programs that will help them eat healthy and keep learning until the fall.

Sam Evans-Brown has been working for New Hampshire Public Radio since 2010, when he began as a freelancer. He shifted gears in 2016 and began producing Outside/In, a podcast and radio show about “the natural world and how we use it.” His work has won him several awards, including two regional Edward R. Murrow awards, one national Murrow, and the Overseas Press Club of America's award for best environmental reporting in any medium. He studied Politics and Spanish at Bates College, and before reporting was variously employed as a Spanish teacher, farmer, bicycle mechanic, ski coach, research assistant, a wilderness trip leader and a technical supporter.

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