For the many low-income children in the U.S., summer can be a hungry time, especially for those who depend on federally-funded breakfast and lunch programs for a large share of their school-year meals.

Now new research is showing that the food those youngsters do get to eat during the summer months is often not healthy and at risk of contributing to childhood obesity and other nutrition-related problems.

The study, published last month in the Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, shows that summer “is a critical nutrition intervention period” especially for children living in homes where food scarcity is already an issue, according to the authors from the Temple University and University of Minnesota nursing programs.

“The analysis showed that children who experience food insecurity — those who have a limited availability of nutritionally-adequate food — ate less fruit and consumed more sugary beverages during the summer, particularly on weekends,” said lead author Jiwoo Lee, a research associate with Minnesota’s School of Nursing.

Lee noted that children tend to gain weight over the summer months.

“The study findings support a need for ongoing efforts to improve weekend food access for children, particularly for those who experience food insecurity,” Lee said.

The findings were based on data from two randomized controlled trials in metropolitan Minnesota. One trial was aimed at preventing obesity in children 8 to 12 years old through family-focused intervention. The other trial’s goal was preventing excess weight gain in children also 8 to 12 years old but through a school-based weight management program led by school nurses.

Anne Farrell, a professor with The College of New Jersey’s health and exercise science department, said food-insecure households often can’t afford to buy healthy food, are located in communities where nutritious food is hard to access, or need more education about what constitutes optimal nutrition.

Farrell said she is researching funding possibilities to address some of these nutrition deficits in the Trenton area, where The College of New Jersey’s campus is located.

“We know this is a huge need during the summer, particularly on the weekends and even during the school year because these kids are coming back from the weekend really lethargic because sometimes they haven’t eaten for two days or all they’ve eaten is junk,” Farrell said.

“It’s not just a summer problem," she said. "It’s a year-round problem.”