Experts have dubbed it the “summer slide” or “summer learning loss” — the phenomenon where students’ cognitive skills noticeably slip during their summer breaks from school. This is likely because kids tend to be less disciplined during their nearly three-month-long vacations. They are not regularly engaging in enriching activities such as reading, art, science or playing a musical instrument.
But for too many students, the intellectually stimulating experiences that their friends may enjoy during the summer — museum visits, trips to exotic locations, summer camp — are out of the question because of time, logistical or financial constraints.
Making sure children are engaged, especially during the summer, is no longer a choice. It’s a necessity, especially given the highly competitive, interdependent world we live in. We need to provide the kids with what I call “mental nourishment.” One of the best ways to do this is to provide healthful, nutritious food, especially during the summer.
The National School Lunch Program is invaluable. Last year, it provided more than 22 million kids free or reduced-price lunch during the school year. However, during the summer, this program is unavailable while school is not in session (for most students, anyway). This especially puts the kids who live in the more than 15 million food-insecure households in the United States at a huge disadvantage, since they are heavily reliant on those school-provided meals.
Fortunately, there are many groups around the country that step in to fill this void each summer. Islamic Relief USA, a nonprofit humanitarian and advocacy organization that works to alleviate poverty and hunger in over 40 countries, runs summer feeding programs around the country, including one here in Kansas City at Al Inshirah Islamic Center at 3664 Troost Ave.
Several studies have shown a reliable correlation or link between proper eating and academic performance. A recent report by Share Our Strength’s “No Kid Hungry” campaign stated that kids who eat school breakfast score 17.5 percent higher on tests than those who didn’t consume anything. Also, a 2011 article in The Journal of School Health noted that most relevant studies found a positive and noticeable connection between good nutrition and better grades.
Even during the summertime break from classrooms and tests, kids still need those flaxseed and yogurt bars. Instilling this good behavior during the summer can pay academic dividends during the school year. In his best-selling book, “Get Started,” author Brian Tracy wrote that it takes about 21 days to adopt a new habit. So if schoolkids starts now, they could set themselves up for success on day one of the new semester.
This summer feeding program can also compel the kids to participate in subsidized school breakfast during the academic year. According to the USDA, only one in six kids who participates in the school lunch program does the same for breakfast. That gap could close substantially if these kids and their families experience the benefits firsthand.
If nothing else, adopting healthy eating habits at a young age can help avert increasingly common health problems in adulthood such as diabetes, high blood pressure and heart disease. Many of those issues can be traced back to the consumption of low-quality processed foods.
We know that this is still summer. It’s a time to have fun and, yes, enjoy those comfort foods. But the effect of what kids eat on their concentration, alertness and intellectual prowess isn’t junk science.
Syed M. Hassan is the public affairs and media relations specialist at Islamic Relief USA, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit humanitarian and advocacy organization based in Alexandria, Virginia.