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The holidays can be a festive time of big indulgent meals, but roughly one in five families with children is not getting enough food. And for those kids, the holidays mean a brief stop to the free or reduced-price school meals they depend on for basic nutrition.

Dan Carsen of member station WBHM in Birmingham, Alabama, reports.

DAN CARSEN, BYLINE: Rachel Price works full time at a daycare center in Birmingham. She's a single mother and makes minimum wage, so she has full-time worries about keeping food on the table for her own children and grandchildren. I caught up with her on her lunch break.

RACHEL PRICE: It hurts as a mother, trying to tell your child they can't go into the kitchen and get something. It's definitely a struggle, you know? I have a lot of sleepless nights. I cry a lot.

CARSEN: That's because of practical details that some people never have to worry about, but for Price and others, those little things can get big, quickly, like on her kids' doctor visits or at the supermarket.

PRICE: A lot of times, you sit and you wonder, am I going to have enough? Do I go with cheap, you know? Do I go with noodles and sandwiches, or do I go with, you know, healthy meals? I've had them where their iron was low because you chose to go that noodle route.

CARSEN: Price has a somewhat easier time during the academic year when her kids get free breakfast and lunch. But what happens when school is on break?

KAREN KAPP: A lot of them do go hungry.

CARSEN: That's Karen Kapp, director of Better Basics, a children's literacy and enrichment program near Birmingham. She says as kids' brains mature, the ones who don't get enough food fall further behind better-fed peers. Linda Godfrey advises school districts on their meal operations. She's also run summer-school feeding programs.

LINDA GODFREY: Sometimes at six and 6:30 in the morning, they would have their faces to the door, and as soon as the doors would open at 11 o'clock, they would already be lined up, and they were extremely hungry, especially on Monday.

CARSEN: Even with school, food stamps and food banks, some kids just aren't getting enough to eat. A recent national survey found more than half of teachers have used their own money to buy food for hungry students. They know hunger increases the chances of academic failure, which pushes people toward unemployment or even crime. School systems and communities do have programs to get food to needy kids during breaks, but often, funding is short, and there are other problems. Summer programs especially rely on centralized feeding sites, but some families don't have cars. There are psychological obstacles too.

WARD WILLIAMS: There's been a lot of people who had never gotten help from any kind of agency before. They're too proud to ever ask for help, so the kids were struggling.

CARSEN: That's Ward Williams, founder of Vineyard Family Services, a small nonprofit tucked in the back of a church in Shelby County, Alabama. He and Stephanie Grissom run Backpack Buddies. It's one approach being tried across the country to fight weekend hunger, and it sidesteps the stigma of accepting help.

Here's Grissom packing up food.

STEPHANIE GRISSOM: We make sure we have two lunches, and we have two breakfasts. And then it all goes in the bag, and the bag is the way that it is because we want it to be discreet. It's not labeled, and they can't see through it.

CARSEN: Grissom and Williams drive the bags to elementary and middle schools, some of them an hour away. They unload it for school counselors like Valley Elementary's Kay McCrae, who get it to needy kids to take home on Fridays.

KAY MCCRAE: They'll wink at me in the hall or give me a thumbs-up, and sometimes, they even come up and give me a hug and whisper in my ear: Are you bringing my bag today? It almost brings tears to my eyes.

CARSEN: It also strengthens the counselor-student relationship, and staffers say the program is boosting grades. But McCrae and food-service expert Linda Godfrey understand the big picture, and the problems are bigger than backpacks.

Here's Godfrey.

GODFREY: I had children that would come up to me and say: I really don't want to be out of school for Christmas because we know we're not going to get much to eat. We can say over and over and over it's a parent's responsibility to feed their children, but the bottom line is they don't.

CARSEN: The reasons for that are complex, and the solutions are too. But for many families, especially the kids, holidays aren't all parties and lights; they're about hunger too.

For NPR News, I'm Dan Carsen in Birmingham.

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