Marian Wright Edelman | 5/7/2014, 3 p.m.
Many plants blossom and thrive all summer long. Children should be able to do the same.
Marian Wright Edelman (Courtesy of childrensdefense.org)

A perennial favorite science project from preschool on up is the “seed experiment.” That’s when a child plants identical seeds in two pots. She places the first pot inside a dark cupboard and leaves it there, and she puts the second one in a sunny spot and waters it every day. She waits to see what will happen. It’s very easy for even the youngest children to figure out that their seedlings need the basics – sunlight and water – if they are going to survive and thrive.

The same is true for children, and “the basics” during children’s earliest years can have long lasting effects. Arloc Sherman, senior researcher at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities and one of the contributors to the new Harvard Education Press book Improving the Odds for America’s Children, put it this way: “I think sometimes we forget to say how important for children’s futures the day-to-day basic assistance of food, clothing, shelter is ... We’ve had help from the research community recently, striking studies that help make the case that when you just provide the basics, that’s one key cornerstone for children’s future success. So it’s not just that we’re meeting an important need – which would be enough in itself – but we’re also providing for opening future doors of opportunity.”

They tracked their progress from the 1960s and 1970s into adulthood, comparing them to similar children who didn’t have access to food stamps. The results showed the power of nutrition: the children who had access to food stamps were less likely to have stunted growth, be obese, or have heart disease as adults – and the positive effects weren’t just health-related. One of the largest differences was that children in families with food stamps were 18 percent more likely to graduate from high school.

This echoes other studies on the positive effects of federal nutrition programs that found needy children who received food assistance before age five were in better health as adults and girls who received food assistance were more likely to complete more schooling, earn more money, and not rely on safety net programs as adults.

The case for providing the basics for all children in America is hard to refute. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, 2.2 million children were lifted out of poverty by the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), formerly known as food stamps, in 2012. Yet right now, we are fast approaching a critical time for hungry children: summer vacation. School-based federal nutrition programs have proved to be a lifeline for needy children.

In fiscal year 2012, more than 21 million children received free or reduced-price lunch through the National School Lunch Program and nearly 11 million children received free and reduced price breakfast. Hunger doesn’t end on the last day of school – yet only 11 percent of the number of children who relied on those lunches during the school year received meals through the Summer Food Service Program.

Even though the program is 100 percent federally-funded and can create desperately needed jobs for cafeteria workers and others during the summer months, many states and communities have created needless bureaucratic hurdles to establishing summer feeding sites resulting in not nearly enough sites to serve all eligible children. But it’s not too late to find out how you can help – or how children you know can participate.