Cecily Walters 2013-01-29 00:21:07
Hunger doesn’t disappear during summer vacation, but you can make a difference for kids in your community by offering a summer meals program. Ah, summer. Most students across the country look forward each year to an extended period of playtime and relaxation before the beginning of a new school year. However, while summer may be a welcome break, it’s also a time when, based on a family’s circumstances, many kids may not be guaranteed regular access to healthy meals. After all, hunger doesn’t abate just because school is out. And that’s a problem—studies show that many children are at a higher risk for both hunger and obesity during the summer months. This is where your school nutrition operation comes in—you can make a significant difference for low-income students in your area by offering or contracting for a summer feeding program. There are many advantages to your program in taking on the administrative responsibilities of a sponsorship role, using one of two approaches offered by the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) Food and Nutrition Service: either the traditional Summer Food Service Program or the Seamless Summer Option. (For more information on the Seamless Summer Option, see the online bonus content at www.schoolnutrition.org/snmagazinebonuscontent.) But your team also can act as a vendor and provide contracted services for community groups with established summer enrichment programs that need expert help in providing meal service. And in communities with a large population of low-income families, you might find that you participate in both models to ensure that the maximum number of children has been reached. SNAPSHOT ■ School nutrition operations can participate in summer feeding as a vendor or a sponsor. ■ Don’t wait until spring to begin planning for summer meal service. ■ Promotion of this program is essential; partner with community groups to spread the word. A Reason for the Season School nutrition operations make a tremendous difference in the lives of impoverished children, but the participation gap between the National School Lunch Program and other federal child nutrition programs is troubling. The gap is not just in the number of participants who show up to receive a meal—it’s also found in the sheer numbers of programs being offered. A hungry child might find relief in a school lunch, but face deprivation in the absence of a breakfast or snack program being available in their school or district. That’s why an important first step is persuading more program sponsors— breakfast, snack, supper and summer—to step forward and make expanded meal service an option for area children. School Nutrition has covered the benefits of providing breakfast at school extensively in recent months (see “Good Mornings” [April 2012], “Giving Breakfast a Boost” [May 2012] and “Breakfast (in the Classroom) Is Served” [November 2012]). School districts can do even more to close the hunger gap by providing afterschool snacks to students through USDA’s Child and Adult Care Food Program (CACFP) and the National School Lunch Program, as well as a supper meal, offered through the CACFP in all states under the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010; information about these programs is available from School Nutrition in exclusive online bonus content at www.schoolnutrition.org/snmagazinebonus content. This article sets out to encourage readers to address child hunger by launching or expanding a summer meals program. Why? Let’s look closely at that participation gap. In 2010, of the more than 20 million U.S. kids who received free or reduced-price school lunches, less than 3 million of them received a free summer meal, according to research from Share Our Strength’s (SOS) No Kid Hungry Campaign. In addition, because of low sponsor participation in the program, states missed out on $312 million in federal child nutrition funding to help pay for summer meals that would have served an additional 4.6 million children. Starting a summer feeding program is a fair amount of work; you can take some of the stress out of the process by beginning to make plans now. The most successful summer programs are highly collaborative, often with community partners that offer enrichment and education activities along with free meals. Even if you have a summer program already in place at school sites in the district, consider making this the year that you expand and make meals available at other sites throughout your community, from low-income housing areas to parks and recreation centers and so on. The following experiences from school nutrition colleagues across the country detail much of what they have learned about serving summer meals. School Nutrition spoke with operators with varying degrees of experience, from more than a decade to a single year of summer service under their belts. Take advantage of this opportunity to benefit from their advice, including how they promote and spread the word about their summer meals offerings—another essential component for summer success. Remember, even within a single district, summer foodservice models can vary greatly. So, while the highlighted examples in this article might not be a perfect fit with the unique factors of your own community, keep an open mind for the nuggets that might offer surprising solutions. Support Leads to Success An hour from the heart of the nation’s capital, the school nutrition team at Anne Arundel County Public Schools is making a difference in Glen Burnie, Md., by providing students with summer meals (specifically, breakfast, lunch and/or snack, or a combination thereof, depending on the site). In Summer 2012, the department, which has been serving summer meals since 2006, provided foodservice at 30 sites, 15 of them schools and the remainder churches and public spaces, such as rec centers. These include five community sites served by a mobile meals operation that teamed the school nutrition department with the county’s transportation department to bring meals to more isolated areas of the community. Dane Emery, food and nutrition services area specialist, shares the success of the summer meals program at Corkran Middle School, which was a participating site for the first time last year. The site was certified “open,” based on free/reduced-eligibility data, allowing the team to serve any child from the community ages 2-18, including students who participate in local at-home day care programs. While Emery is pleased about the number of children the Corkran site fed last summer, he knows that it’s a proverbial drop in the bucket: “It is a harsh reality that sometimes the whole family needs the food, and until we are feeding all of them, we aren’t feeding enough,” he laments. School personnel, including the principal, voluntarily monitor the Corkran feeding program. (An outside volunteer from the military also serves as a site monitor.) But this example of community passion for a summer feeding program isn’t necessarily the norm, reports Anne Sheridan, Maryland director for Share Our Strength’s No Kid Hungry campaign. “The great enthusiasm by the principal and staff at Corkran is not the situation everywhere— it’s the exception. I would clone the way they are doing it in Anne Arundel,” she asserts. One of the non-school sites served by the Anne Arundel County school nutrition team is the North Arundel Swim Center. The majority of the children fed there participate in a nearby camp, making daily visits to the facility, at which the school nutrition department can store equipment required for holding meals at appropriate food-safe temperatures. The Swim Center provides a staff person to keep track of how many children participate on any given day; this staff member receives initial monitor training from the school nutrition department. Once the children receive their bagged lunch, they are welcome to eat it at several outdoor picnic tables or on towels on the sundeck (or inside the facility during inclement weather). Although the school district has offered summer meals for six years, Emery and his colleagues continue to encounter some parental suspicion and concerns that a free summer meals program is simply too good to be true. Many of them want to know, “What is the catch?” he says. Getting kids to show up to sites remains the single greatest barrier still to overcome. Establishing more sites, making it even easier for parents to bring their youngsters each day, is the key. Emery hopes for a “signifi- cantly bigger” meals program in Summer 2013—and he can rest his hopes in a good track record to date: Anne Arundel’s summer feeding program has increased from 7,000 meals served in 2006 to 66,000 in 2012. To promote the summer meal program, the Anne Arundel school nutrition staff uses a number of marketing tactics, including backpack postcards, the department website and automated phone calls to parents. They also have partnered with outside agencies, such as Share Our Strength’s No Kid Hungry campaign, which helped to boost awareness of the program by sending SOS representatives door to door in poverty-stricken areas, inviting residents to take advantage of the hunger-relief meal program. Going forward, Emery plans to use logos from No Kid Hungry and corporate supporters in various summer feeding promotional materials. “Even if it makes a promotional piece look too cluttered,” he explains, “logos of participating organizations that people are familiar with—like Walmart— bring trust.” For novices just exploring what it means to launch a summer foodservice program, Emery’s advice is to start planning now. “The earlier you start, the better off you are,” he recommends. Initial plans should involve seeking potential partnerships “with those you can help and who can help you,” he says, cautioning, “Be prepared for ‘no’ when approaching potential partners, but don’t give up. Sell the positives of why a group should partner with your operation—how helping to feed hungry kids is important to the overall mission of the community and how working with your operation is a win-win, because you can also help them obtain their goals.” For example, he cites, a parks and rec center offering summertime activities for children can benefit from the participation boost it’s likely to get through offering free healthy meals as an added incentive. Establish more sites, making it even easier for parents to bring their youngsters each day. Starting With a Splash Summer 2012 saw the inaugural summer meal service for Doreen Simonds, associate director of nutrition and purchasing services, and her colleagues in Waterford (Mich.) School District. The Waterford team operated out of three sites (two closed and one open) and offered a variety of hot and cold meals, as well as fresh fruits and vegetables ( some from the local farmer’s market). “We tried to make our menu summery and fun, with themes like Souper Salad Bar Day— featuring Cheeseburger in Paradise Soup—and items like Cucumber Watermelon Salad,” Simonds describes. Their hard work and creativity was enjoyed by more than 200 participants each day. To get the word out about their brand-new program, Simonds and her staff sent letters home to families of all students during the last week of school and included details about the program on menus and on the district’s and school nutrition department’s websites, as well as in monthly newsletters. They also hung large banners outside school buildings; posted flyers at local churches, stores, municipal buildings and low-income apartment complexes; sent press releases to local media; and arranged for segments on local radio and television stations. Continual promotion, including two special celebration events, was essential, she explains, to ensure that participation would not wane, but actually grow over the course of summer months. The Waterford team credits grant monies from Action for Healthy Kids and the SOS No Kid Hungry campaign in ensuring the summer meals program had the foundation it needed to get off to a good start. They also relied on resources, tools and grant assistance from the Fuel Up to Play 60 program to conduct taste tests and activities and distribute nutrition handouts. Starting a summer meals program last year was just the right step at the right time for Simonds and her team, as “We know from our increasing free and reduced numbers that this area is growing in need,” she explains. “Every time a mother comes up to me with tears in her eyes and says, ‘I don’t know what I was going to do this summer to feed my kids…thank you so much for doing this!’ I know the struggle was worth it,” Simonds shared on Facebook. As Simonds prepares for her second year of offering summer meals, she finds herself anticipating potential challenges. “Transportation looks like it will be our greatest concern. Many other families would like to participate, but they can’t always find a way [to get to our sites],” she reflects, also expressing concerns about needing more staff and volunteers to develop activities and events that will help attract participation. Many other families would like to participate, but they can’t always find a way to get to our sites. Community Connections “There is a great deal of community support for our summer meals programs, which we’ve been offering for more than 13 years,” says Chris Neal, SNS, director of nutrition services, Highline Public Schools, in Burien, Wash. In Summer 2000, when Neal joined the district, summer meals were only available to students attending summer school programs at three district sites. It has since expanded to an average of 18 sites per summer, including a local Boys and Girls Club, a YMCA and a mission program, all of which are open locations. Last summer, Highline’s long-running program boasted an average daily participation of 124 breakfasts, 550 lunches and 292 snacks. At one site, which serves more than 100 students daily, Neal’s team is able to prep and serve meals on site. To provide meals at smaller sites and those at community program locations, the school nutrition staff establishes a special summer production kitchen that prepares preplated meals using a packing machine that seals all components of the meal in a small plastic container, which protects the contents and allows for easy packing for delivery. The meals are packed in coolers, loaded on trucks and distributed each morning to various satellite meal sites. Breakfast options available last summer included yogurt and multi-grain cereal, while lunches featured items such as broccoli bites, apple slices and turkey-andcheese deli wraps. “There definitely is a greater need in the community, as the poverty level in the district has risen,” Neal reports, adding that some area food bank programs also are offering summer meals, “So that overall, together, we’re able to reach more children,” she notes. Neal concedes that the paperwork for her operation’s summer meals program “can be time-consuming and cumbersome.” Fortunately, however, “USDA’s move to the [Seamless Summer Option] has helped; we now claim the number of meals served times the reimbursement rate per meal. This change has not lessened our accountability, but it has reduced the volume of paperwork required.” She adds that her staff works to train community program site leaders to complete the rosters as meals are distributed to children; this has helped the school nutrition department control costs during the summer by maintaining accurate records. Be Part of the Solution Inspired to start or expand a summer meals program for kids in your own community? Begin the planning process as early as possible, reach out to potential community partners and spread the word using every available communications channel to promote the availability and locations of summer meal service. The gap between the number of children eligible for free summer meals and those actually receiving meals is far too wide. It’s likely that you know many of the children who aren’t taking advantage of available programs—but who should be. School nutrition professionals at all levels have roles to play in closing this gap. Directors and managers can investigate ways to increase the number of serving sites in your community. Managers and employees can take on extra hours—or even volunteer time, as available. Everyone can put on their thinking caps to brainstorm fresh ways to market the program and offer creative enrichment activities to the children. With a collective effort by school nutrition professionals around the country, let’s see if Summer 2013 is the year we make historic success in closing the hunger gap. The gap between the number of children eligible for free summer meals and those actually receiving meals is far too wide. BONUS WEB CONTENT In addition to serving summer meals, many school nutrition programs offer afterschool snacks and supper to hungry children in their communities. Find out more about these programs, as well as survey findings that will help to shed light on low participation numbers for summer meals and an overview of USDA’s Seamless Summer Option, in exclusive online content at www.schoolnutrition.org/snmagazinebonuscontent.
Published by School Nutrition Association. View All Articles.