Skip to main content

Summer Meals: Improvements Needed to Address Participation Estimates and Program Challenges

GAO-18-611T Published: Jul 17, 2018. Publicly Released: Jul 17, 2018.
Jump To:
Skip to Highlights


What GAO Found

Nationwide, the total number of meals served to children in low-income areas through the Summer Food Service Program (SFSP) increased from 113 to 149 million (about 32 percent) from fiscal year 2007 through 2016, according to GAO's May 2018 report. GAO noted that the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) directed states to use the number of meals served, along with other data, to estimate the number of children participating in the SFSP. However, GAO found that participation estimates had been calculated inconsistently from state to state and year to year. In 2017, USDA took steps to improve the consistency of participation estimates, noting they are critical for informing program implementation and strategic planning. However, GAO determined that the method USDA directed states to use would continue to provide unreliable estimates of participation, hindering USDA's ability to use them for these purposes.

Other federal and nonfederal programs helped feed low-income children over the summer to some extent, according to states GAO surveyed and SFSP providers and others GAO interviewed for its May 2018 report. For example, GAO found that in July 2016, about 26 million meals were served through a separate federal program that allowed school meal providers to serve summer meals, according to USDA data. Some children also received summer meals through nonfederal programs operated by faith-based organizations and foodbanks, though GAO's state survey and interviews with SFSP meal providers and national organizations indicated the reach of such efforts was limited.

In GAO's May 2018 report, states and SFSP meal providers reported challenges with issues related to meal sites, participation, and program administration, though USDA, state, and local officials had taken some steps to address these issues. Seventeen states in GAO's survey and several providers in the states GAO visited reported a challenge with ensuring meal sites were in safe locations. To address this issue, USDA granted some states and providers flexibility from the requirement that children consume meals on-site. However, GAO found that USDA had not broadly communicated the circumstances it considered when granting this flexibility or reported to Congress on the use of flexibilities with respect to the on-site requirement in areas where safety was a concern, per requirements. As a result, neither USDA nor Congress knew whether these flexibilities were helping provide meals to children and meeting program goals. Further, officials from national and regional organizations GAO interviewed, as well as providers GAO visited, reported challenges related to the administrative burden associated with participating in multiple child nutrition programs. Although USDA had established program and policy simplifications to help lessen related burdens, the persistence of challenges in this area suggested that information had not reached all relevant state agencies, potentially limiting children's access to meals by discouraging provider participation.

Why GAO Did This Study

This testimony summarizes information contained in GAO's May 2018 report entitled Summer Meals: Actions Needed to Improve Participation Estimates and Address Program Challenges, GAO-18-369. It addresses (1) what is known about SFSP participation, (2) other programs that help feed low-income children over the summer, and (3) challenges in providing summer meals to children and the extent to which USDA provides assistance to address these challenges.

For its May 2018 report, GAO reviewed relevant federal laws, regulations, and guidance; analyzed USDA's SFSP data for fiscal years 2007 through 2016; and surveyed state agencies responsible for administering the SFSP in 50 states and the District of Columbia. GAO also visited a nongeneralizable group of 3 states and 30 meal sites, selected based on Census data on child poverty rates and urban and rural locations, and analyzed meal site data from these 3 states. In addition, GAO interviewed USDA, state, and national organization officials, as well as SFSP providers, including sponsors and site operators.


In its May 2018 report, GAO made four recommendations, including that USDA improve estimates of children's participation in SFSP, communicate the circumstances it considers when granting flexibilities to ensure safe meal delivery, evaluate and annually report to Congress on its use of waivers and demonstration projects when granting these flexibilities, and disseminate information about existing flexibilities available to streamline administrative requirements for providers participating in multiple child nutrition programs. USDA generally agreed with GAO's recommendations.

Full Report

GAO Contacts

Office of Public Affairs


Child nutritionChildrenEligibility criteriaFederal assistance programsFood programs for childrenLow-income childrenMeals and refreshmentsNutrition servicesParticipation ratesProgram implementationProgram managementSchool meal programsStrategic planningPublic health emergencies