We owe our children the nutrition they need to get a head start

by Cindy Long

In Rural Alaska and elsewhere, USDA is helping.

As we begin preparing our kids for the back-to-school season, it is important to reflect on the critical role that summertime has in the development of our children. It’s a time for them to slow things down, have fun, grow socially, and spend quality time with family—all activities that help our kids thrive and be refreshed and ready for the school year.

While many of us have fond memories of the summer, some families in Alaska, particularly those in rural and tribal communities, wondered how they would feed their children and provide for them while school was out.

At the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), we have been committed to ensuring that rural families and the communities they live in have equitable access to the resources necessary to create positive summer memories that will last a lifetime.

Rural and remote areas have rich, diverse, and unique cultures and we believe that any resources provided to these communities should enhance and reflect these cultures, not take away from them. One such program is USDA’s Food Distribution Program on Indian Reservations (FDPIR) Self-Determination Demonstration Project, which is funding the Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium to provide traditional foods to 18 tribes on Indian reservations in Alaska.

This project is helping families and kids served by the program get more access to traditional foods like Alaskan halibut, cod, and Alaskagrown potatoes that are both healthy and valued by their cultures. After all, it’s our collective responsibility to make sure our kids have everything they need to be healthy, grow, and develop.

To help make that happen, USDA has established new partnerships at the state and local, and tribal levels. USDA and state and tribal partners are running sites across the country this summer for children who receive free or reduced-price school meals so that they can get the critical nutrition they need when schools are closed. You can find a site near you by visiting FNS.USDA.gov/Meals4Kids.

USDA is also excited about our new opportunities to feed kids during the summer, especially in rural and tribal communities. This includes new options for pickup and delivery, as well as a Summer EBT program starting in summer of 2024. The meal pickup and delivery programs will especially benefit people in rural settings.

In the past, children were required to gather in central locations to get meals, something that’s not always possible for those living in rural and tribal communities or those with limited access to transportation. To solve that, pickup and delivery meal services provide delivery and pickup options that can make access to healthy food so much easier for many Alaskan children.

Similarly, the Summer EBT program is another option that will help as many as 70,000 Alaskan children. The program will allow tribes and states to provide eligible families with preloaded cards for buying groceries during summer, with approximately $40 per month for each child who is eligible for free or reduced-price school meals, bringing up to $8.4 million to Alaska summer 2024.

We understand that one solution won’t work for every family, which is why the Summer EBT program will operate in addition to – not instead of – summer meals sites.

The health of kids plays a crucial role in sustaining the long-term viability of our rural communities. Children are the future of any community, and their well-being directly impacts the community’s overall prosperity and continuity. When kids have access to proper nutrition, along with supportive environments, they are more likely to grow into healthy, engaged, and active adults. This, in turn, leads to robust and skilled rural communities, essential for local economic growth and development. In addition, ensuring our kids have access to healthy foods creates a positive cycle of health and well-being that extends through generations.

We know that Alaskans believe that the health of kids is a fundamental investment in the future of its local communities. USDA stands with you knowing that it is the collective responsibility of families, schools, healthcare providers, federal and state policymakers, and community members to prioritize the health of kids to create sustainable and thriving environments that support the long-term success of our nation’s rural communities.

Cindy Long is the Food Nutrition Service Administrator for the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

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