Connie Matthiessen, Associate Editor
For many children, summer doesn't mean sun-splashed afternoons at the beach, or sleep-away camp in the wilderness, or swimming lessons at the local pool. For too many kids, summer means hours in front of a TV or video screen — electronic refuge from long, hot days with nothing to do. It also means limited exercise or access to healthy food, resulting in both an increased risk of obesity and bouts of grinding hunger.
The fact is that poor children have a starkly different summer experience than middle- and upper-class kids do. Wealthier parents can afford to send their kids to camp, sports programs, summer tutors, and other enrichment activities. They can afford family vacations, modest or far flung. Due to grim budgets, state and local governments around the country have slashed summer school and other free and low-cost programs that traditionally provided options for low-income children. This situation is contributing to the achievement gap in the U.S.: studies show that all children regress academically during the summer, but the effect is worse for low-income children. According to the National Summer Learning Association (NSLA), "More than half of the achievement gap between lower- and higher-income youth can be explained by unequal access to summer learning opportunities."
The link between hunger and obesity
Beyond the academic threats, summer also poses health risks for low-income children. While school’s out, many kids lack access to healthy, nutritious food options, increasing their risk of hunger. In its report, "Hunger Doesn't Take a Vacation," the Food Research and Action Center found that last summer, only one in seven low-income students who relied on school lunches during the year received them during the summer months. While the number of children who qualify for school lunches has risen steadily, the number with access to summer meals has been declining since 2009. Ironically, the threat of hunger increases the risk of obesity, too.
After a review of a recent studies, NSLA writes, "children gain BMI [Body Mass Index] three times faster during the summer as compared to the school year." Children at higher risk of being overweight, including African American, Hispanic, and children who are already heavy, are more vulnerable to summer weight gain. Report authors attribute the weight gain to reduced physical activity during the summer months, as well as unhealthy eating; kids with nothing to do are less physically active and have more opportunities for snacking. Research shows that teens who participate in organized summer activities are at lower risk for obesity than teens who don’t.
Achievement gap creating permanent recession
Given the current economic climate, this situation doesn't seem likely to improve any time soon — and that’s bad news for us all: a 2009 report by McKinsey & Company found that the education achievement gaps in the U.S. are creating what amounts to a permanent recession.
Still, there are some positive developments out there. For one thing, there seems to be growing awareness of the problem, and innovative, low-cost summer programs are popping up around the country thanks to support from groups like United Way, the Wallace foundation, and others (learn more on the NSLA website).
Many of us cherish an idea of summer as a time to explore new places, spend time in nature, and learn something new. But for too many kids, this is a summer that's way out of reach — at best a fleeting image on the television screen.