Senator Merkley, Representatives Morelle and Katko Team Up to Close Summer Learning Gap

Washington, D.C. – Today, Oregon’s Senator Jeff Merkley, along with Congressmen Joseph Morelle (D-NY-25) and John Katko (R-NY-24), introduced the bipartisan, bicameral Summer Meals and Learning Act—legislation to address summer learning inequities by keeping school libraries open at schools that serve free summer meals.

“Every student—no matter their color, income, or zip code—deserves an excellent education that puts them on track for a lifetime of success,” said Merkley. “But when the school year ends and summer vacation begins, millions of children go months without learning opportunities, leaving them at a disadvantage. Add an existing problem of child hunger—even before the COVID-19 pandemic, over half a million people in Oregon, including one in five children, struggled with food insecurity—and the challenges for children grow. This bill will not just minimize an educational gap during the summer months, but also help ensure students are kept fed while school is out. I look forward to working with my colleagues from both sides of the aisle to ensure brighter futures for our kids.”

“As the husband of a retired teacher, I know that for many children, the joy of summer break is often overshadowed by the dread of food insecurity and learning loss,” said Congressman Joe Morelle. “No child should go hungry, which is I’m proud to join my colleagues in introducing the Summer Learning and Meals Act to keep school libraries open during summer break and ensure children have access to reliable, healthy meals. In addition to reducing food insecurity, this legislation will play an important role in helping to close the achievement gap—giving all children the opportunity to thrive.”

“Many children in Central New York struggle to access nutritious meals and educational resources during the summer months,” said Rep. Katko “This lack of access all too often disadvantages lower-income children and translates to long-term repercussions for their health and education. That is why I am proud to join Sen. Merkley and Rep. Morelle in introducing legislation to help ensure summer meals and summer reading can go hand in hand, ensuring brighter futures for every student.”

While more affluent children often participate in extracurricular activities during the summer, too many low-income children lose access to learning opportunities when school is closed. Low-income children lose at least two months of reading achievement every summer, and by 5th grade, children without summer learning opportunities are two years behind their peers.

Despite the fact that summer has been identified as a major factor in the achievement gap in America’s schools, there is still no dedicated source of funding for summer learning. Research has also shown that high quality summer learning programs can help students maintain or even increase their academic skills over the summer months, especially in reading. However, the majority of school libraries are closed during the summer.

In 2012, Oregon’s Summer Learning Partnership created a grant program to allow schools to keep their libraries open at existing summer meal sites to benefit the students most at-risk of learning loss. Based on Oregon’s successful program, the Summer Learning and Meals Act would create a new federal program that provides grants to state libraries to allow schools with summer lunch programs to keep their libraries open for student use during the summer months.

Specifically, the Summer Meals and Learning Act will:

  • Create a new federal grant program (based off of Oregon’s demonstrated successful program) to provide grants to state libraries to allow schools to keep their libraries open for students during the summer months for schools that: 
    • Have a summer lunch program; and  
    • Have at least 50% of students reading below grade level or are at-risk of reading below grade level. 
  • Allow state libraries to award subgrants based on the proposed number of school lunch sites and students that will be served under the summer early reading program; 
  • Require agencies receiving grants to submit yearly reports regarding the progress made in achieving the purposes of the grant or subgrant; and 
  • Authorize $5 million for each of fiscal years 2023 through 2027. 

In addition to Merkley, Morelle and Katko, the Summer Meals and Learning Act is cosponsored by Senators Richard Blumenthal (D-CT), Ron Wyden (D-OR), and Cory Booker (D-NJ).

Anti-hunger and nutrition advocates reiterated the importance of these flexibilities and applauded the bill to keep critical flexibilities for school nutrition programs to feed children. Endorsing organizations include: the American Library Association, National Summer Learning Association, Share Our Strength, and OregonASK.

“In far too many communities, the school library is the only resource available to young students for summer reading programs and meals,” said Lessa Kanani’opua Pelayo-Lozada, President of the American Library Association. “School librarians encourage students to read throughout the summer months and help bridge the gap between school years for students of all ages. Librarians, with the support of the Summer Meals and Learning Act will help ensure that well-read also means well-fed.”

“Summer is often the time of year where children go the hungriest due to a gap in meals programs provided during the school year through federal programs. According to NSLA’s 2019 report, “Feed Hungry Minds and Bodies: Combining Summer Learning and Summer Meals,” food insecurity for children leads to higher likelihood of health, behavioral, and social development problems. Children do not need to go hungry during the summer months. There are sensible solutions at the federal level, like the Summer Meals and Learning Act, introduced by Senator Merkley and Reps. Morelle and Katko, which would create strong partnerships with libraries and community partners to ensure more kids, especially the most vulnerable, are fed during the summer months,” said Aaron Philip Dworkin, CEO of the National Summer Learning Association.

“This bill helps to address the ongoing challenges facing families, children and the organizations serving meals in their communities,” said Lisa Davis, Senior Vice President of Share Our Strength’s No Kid Hungry campaign. “With so many families struggling to stretch limited budgets to meet rapidly rising food, fuel and housing costs, summer meals are more important than ever. Communities need a variety of tools and flexibilities to ensure nutritious meals can reach children where they live, learn and play.”

Final bill text can be found here.

One-page summary of the bill can be found here.