Panel Paper: If You Build It, Will They Come? Access to the Summer Food Service Program and Food Insecurity Among Low Income Households with Children

Thursday, November 6, 2014 : 10:35 AM
Acoma (Convention Center)

*Names in bold indicate Presenter

Daniel Miller, Boston University
Although it has been in operation for more than 40 years, there has been only limited research on the Summer Food Service Program (SFSP) and its impact on household food insecurity. The SFSP offers free meals and snacks to children over the summer when school is not in session. Thus, the program is a potentially vital resource to low income children who may not have access to affordable and healthy food over the summer when the National School Lunch and School Breakfast programs are not operating. However, contrasted with other nutrition programs like SNAP where the vast majority of eligible children participate, the SFSP only reaches a small fraction of target children. Compared to the National School Lunch program, which had an average participation of 21.5 million in 2013, average daily participation in the SFSP in July (the most reliable month to measure participation) was only 2.43 million.

This sizeable participation gap suggests the need for reliable estimates of the impacts of the SFSP on food security. Should the SFSP be linked to better food security, this would provide impetus for expanded efforts to ensure participation in the program. To this end, this study investigates whether geographic accessibility to SFSP program sites is associated with household food insecurity in low income households with children. The study uses data from two data sources: administrative data on the State of California's Summer Food Service Program and individual-level data from the California Health Interview Survey (CHIS), which is a representative phone-based surveillance survey. Based on geo-coding of CHIS respondent addresses and SFSP program sites, it assesses whether access to the SFSP is associated with low or very low household food security among CHIS household with children living below 200% of the poverty line. It uses three measures of access: driving time to the nearest SFSP site; the number of sites reachable within 60 minutes; and, an accessibility score for each respondent (calculated using a gravity model as a summative function of the provision of meals at nearby SFSP program sites, discounted by the driving time necessary to reach these sites.) It measures household food security using a standard 6-item measure developed by the Economic Research Service of the United States Department of Agriculture.

Results indicate that driving distance to the nearest site is not associated with either low or very low household food security. However, the number of sites reachable within an hour and the accessibility score are both associated with significant decreases in the probability of low household food security. Specifically, a one standard deviation increase in accessibility was associated with a 0.04 standard deviation decrease in the probability of household food insecurity, tantamount to a decreased probability of about 0.02. These results are an important contribution to the literature and provide preliminary evidence that policy makers should consider adopting measures that will prompt new sponsors to enroll in the program and for existing sponsors to open additional SFSP sites.