No matter how many years have passed since you were in school, you probably haven’t forgotten that feeling of anticipation for summer vacation as school winds down for the year. Remember starting to get antsy sitting in class and thinking about sleeping in, homework-free afternoons and the hot summer sun? However, as those familiar with child nutrition programs know, there is a different kind of anticipation felt by kids whose only regular source of meals comes from breakfast, lunch and for some, afterschool meals.
Free meals offered by the Summer Food Service Program (SFSP) seek to fill that void for children 18 and under so they won’t go hungry during the summer, and as a result can enjoy their out-of-school time more fully. However, the Food Research and Action Center (FRAC) reports that in the summer of 2012, only 1 in 7 of the low-income children receiving free or reduced price meals during the school year were also served by summer meal programs. That means over 85 percent of these children missed out on the opportunity for a healthy meal.
This year, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) declared this week (June 2-8) “Summer Meals Awareness Week” in an effort to get the word out and increase participation in these meal programs so that more kids in need are benefiting from free and healthy meals this summer.
NLC, in coordination with FRAC, is currently providing grants and assistance to 15 cities to help them promote and expand participation in afterschool and summer meal programs. While each city’s approach is unique, they have all formed partnerships that incorporate representatives from mayors’ offices or other city departments, local school districts and anti-hunger organizations and/or food banks. These partnerships make clear the crucial role that city government can and should play in ensuring that children have access to healthy meals during the summer months. Below are examples of how two of these cities are working to promote summer meals.
Kansas City, Kansas
On May 1, Healthy Communities Wyandotte, housed within the Unified Government of Kansas City and Wyandotte County Public Health Department, hosted a Mayor’s Food Summit. This event brought together over 200 community leaders and residents to discuss the overall goal of increasing residents’ access to healthy fruits and vegetables. The summit featured discussion on increasing availability of nutritious foods in schools and utilizing federal child nutrition programs to improve health outcomes for participating students (in addition to utilization of school gardens and implementing farm-to-school food service). Research has shown that students receiving afterschool meals have a higher daily intake of fruits, vegetables and key nutrients than those that do not.
Mayor Mark Holland spoke of his vision for all residents to have access to healthy foods, better nutrition and a high quality of life. Incorporating the goals of the summit with news of plans for a healthy downtown campus, Mayor Holland spoke of his hope to create a national model to improve urban health. In addition to strong mayoral support for improving residents’ health outcomes, the Kansas City team is utilizing new marketing materials advertising summer meals, and a map of summer meal sites available on the Kansas City Kansas Public Schools website to promote this year’s summer meals.
Providence, Rhode Island
The Healthy Communities Office, established by Mayor Angel Taveras to focus on healthy living policies, community coordination and systems change in Providence, is working closely with the Parks and Recreation Department and the Rhode Island Community Food Bank to increase participation in this year’s summer meal program.
Utilizing their pass-through grant funds, the team developed a number of marketing materials designed to spread the word — in both English and Spanish — about the availability of free summer meals for kids and teens 18 and under. The messages will appear around the city on printed banners, posters and city street lights; will be sent home with students on door hangers for parents; and will appear on flags posted by tents covering the summer meal sites. In addition to printed materials, the city is making use of local English and Spanish radio stations to deliver the message to parents about where their kids can access free meals this summer. This multi-faceted marketing campaign, combined with a kickoff event in early July, will promote the program to kids and families throughout the city.
As schools around the country begin to close for the summer, many school districts, city parks and recreation departments, city recreation centers, public housing facilities, YMCAs, Boys and Girls clubs, summer camps, migrant centers and Indian reservations are hard at work to ensure that teens and kids have access to nutritional food when they are not in school.
In addition to schools, local governments and nonprofit organizations can also serve as summer meal sponsors. Check out the USDA’s website to learn more about how to become a summer meal site or sponsor, or to learn about where summer meal sites are in your communities.
Also be sure to check out FRAC’s new report, Hunger Doesn’t Take a Vacation: Summer Nutrition Status Report 2014. The report indicates that participation in summer meal programs increased 5.7 percent from summer 2012 to summer 2013, the largest increase in ten years. This growth, which they credit to the tireless work of USDA staff and national, state and local stakeholders to promote participation in summer meal programs, is an encouraging sign for cities investing in program promotion.
About the Author: Dawn Schluckebier is an Associate for Family Economic Success in NLC’s Institute for Youth, Education, and Families.