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Summer Hunger Is A Symptom Of A Persistently Flawed Food System

Summertime brings its own set of additional pressures that make life that much harder for families who are having a tough time making ends meet.

07/20/2017 09:40 EDT | Updated 07/20/2017 09:45 EDT

According to the Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Armstrong classic, in the summertime, living is easy — or at least, it's supposed to be. The sunshine lasts longer, warm days invite picnics and barbecues, and everything seems a bit more carefree.

Unfortunately, summertime also brings its own set of additional pressures that make life that much harder for families who are having a tough time making ends meet.

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School being out for the summer means that families who rely on breakfast clubs and school meals to fill the gap don't have access to these programs. Summer vacation also means that working parents need to find child care during the day, whether that be through daycares, camps or babysitters, putting additional strains on already-tight budgets.

Food banks exist to help families fill in the gaps during tough times like these. Many families access these services: in our 2016 Hunger Report, we found that food banks serve 112,000 children each month, which represents about a third of food bank clients. But in the summer, hunger tends to not be top of mind for most people, so donations of both food and funds tend to drop off.

Our food banks have adapted — saving up so they can purchase food during leaner months, reaching out to farmers and food companies for donations, and participating in fundraisers like Food Banks Canada's Every Plate Full — but summer hunger still remains a persistent problem, and its existence highlights significant cracks in how our system addresses child food insecurity.

If all families had access to affordable child care throughout the year, this summer gap wouldn't have as big of an impact.

Where and when they are available, school meals, after-school snack programs and breakfast clubs — many of which are supported or run by food banks — do important work by providing children with good meals that prepare them for a day of learning, playing and growing.

But these programs don't reach every child, and Canada remains the only G8 and OECD nation without a national school meal program. In addition, programs often have to rely on local fundraising, as the Ontario Student Nutrition Program only provides up to 15 per cent of funding and the amount provided by local government varies by location.

They are also not available over the summertime. A recent survey showed that one-third of low and middle income families in Canada struggle to provide meals for their children over the summer holidays.

If all families had access to affordable child care throughout the year, this summer gap wouldn't have as big of an impact. Unfortunately, this isn't the reality for many families, especially in Ontario, which has the dubious distinction of containing seven of the 10 most expensive cities for daycare in the country.

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While subsidies for low-income families do exist, it can be hard to get one. In Toronto alone, there are nearly 18,000 children on the waitlist for a child-care fee subsidy. The annual fee for daycare ranges from $12,396 for a preschooler to $20,832 for an infant — more than the cost of university tuition. Summer camps for older children can range from $300 to $1,500 a week, according to the Ontario Camp Association.

It's also not just prohibitive costs, but availability: only one in five children in Ontario under the age of four has access to a licensed spot in daycare, and in a recent survey of Canadian cities, most reported that at least 70 per cent of child-care centres had waitlists.

The provincial government has pledged to add an additional 100,000 spots to the existing 390,000 over the next five years, and the federal government has committed to a national child-care framework that would add 40,000 spaces across the country. While these are certainly both encouraging steps in the right direction, a large gap in terms of both access and affordability will still remain even after these improvements.

In the long run, we must address the root causes of summer hunger and child food insecurity.

Many food banks have developed creative solutions to help make a dent in summer hunger with initiatives like mobile markets, community gardens, summer snack programs and some even provide child-care programs. They also continue to provide the three to 12 days' worth of food to families in need that is available all year round.

Donating to food banks over the summer months is an important way you can help in the short term, especially because of the drop-in donations that they typically see. Most local food banks can accept and store fresh food, so if you have a bumper crop of zucchinis or other produce in your garden and can't possibly eat it all, consider sharing with families in need.

You can also donate to the Ontario Association of Food Banks — we support food banks to help ensure they have food to share all year round.

But in the long run, we must address the root causes of summer hunger and child food insecurity, and that comes down to reducing financial pressures on young families.

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