The grilled chicken salad at the Library Ale House. There are several fresh, flavorful and filling salads on the menu. They go great with a citrusy IPA. (Photo courtesy Ken Plotin)

Spending three days riding three hundred miles on a bicycle, you think about a lot of things: Your sore backside. Water. The abundant and beautiful farmland. And what it really means for our state when our children are going hungry.

I recently joined more than 100 of my fellow chefs on a charity bike ride for No Kid Hungry, a national organization focused on childhood hunger. And while I’ve long been a supporter of the cause, I spent many of those cycling hours reflecting on the impact of childhood hunger.

California is a state of plenty, which makes it even more heartbreaking to know that 1 in 5 kids here struggle with hunger. There are millions of children who simply don’t have consistent, reliable access to the nutritious meals they need. In some homes, the pantry is completely bare. In others, hard working moms and dads are skipping meals in order for their kids to eat. Elsewhere, families are making wrenching decisions between rent and food, between whether to keep the lights on or buy a bag of groceries.

This crisis is especially acute during the summer. Many of these kids know they can consistently get the nutrition they need during the school year, thanks to school meals. When our schools close, however, these meals disappear. Instead of a summer of freedom and fun, for these kids, summer is a time of agitation, stress and unease. When that final school bell rings to signal the completion of another academic year, the lifeline of school meals is unplugged.

This has a devastating impact on kids. Ask any doctor – when kids don’t get proper nutrition, they have a higher likelihood of expensive, avoidable diseases like heart disease, type-2 diabetes, asthma, iron deficiency and anemia. Ask any teacher – when kids spend weeks in the summer without enough food, their grades suffer. They forget more from the year before and slide behind other students in math and reading.

It doesn’t have to be this way. In fact, we need to demand a reliable and consistent system to replace school meals for our marginalized youth in summertime.

As a chef, I fundamentally believe that all people should have access to healthy, fresh food. I know that food is abundant, but the systems to ensure all children get the nutrition they need every day are lacking. I can’t underscore enough the importance of making sure our kids get the food their bodies need to learn, grow and thrive. As a Californian, I believe that our collective future isn’t healthy unless our kids are healthy.

Let’s start with summer. And let’s start with Congress.

Our lawmakers in Washington, D.C. are currently considering improvements to the summer meals program through Child Nutrition Reauthorization. There’s a strong, effective, bipartisan bill that would help to end summer hunger for kids across our state, but Congress has been slow to give this issue the attention it deserves. We all must urge our legislators to pass the strongest bill possible so kids can get the nutrition they need, no matter where they live, no matter what time of year.

We can’t wait. This is the bill, and this is the time. Kids can’t push pause on their hunger while Congress is plagued by inaction. Kids deserve programs that work year round delivering the food that will fuel their good health. We all need this for a healthy future.

By Mary Sue Milliken

Mary Sue is the co-chef and –owner of Border Grill Restaurants and Trucks. She has co-authored five cookbooks, co-stared in the Food Network’s “Too Hot Tamales,” and co-hosted a food centered radio show for over a decade in Los Angeles. She competed on season three of Bravo’s “Top Chef Masters,” making it to the finale and winning $40,000 for her charity, Share Our Strength, and its mission to end childhood hunger in America. Visit www.nokidhungry.org for more information.