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Creating summer meals so students aren't left hungry

Districts building and diversifying programs to ensure students receive adequate nutrition all year long
  • MEANINGFUL MEALS—Students at Clinton City Schools in North Carolina benefit from free lunches, even when school isn’t in session.
  • (Source: Food Research & Action Center, June 2016 report).
  • LITTLE BODIES READY—Stilwell Public Schools in Oklahoma offers healthy summer lunches. Superintendent Geri Gilstrap says, after children eat, their “little bodies are more prepared to learn.”

Wichita Public Schools worked hard last summer to sell children on free food. Those attending the first week of the district’s summer meal program received raffle tickets, crayons and ice cream treats. Administrators, dressed as fruits and vegetables, passed around samples of papaya and sugar snap peas.

Dressing up is “actually pretty fun,” says David Paul, Wichita’s director of nutrition services, aka Banana Boy. “Except for the costumes getting pretty warm when it’s 100 degrees outside.”

Across the country, thousands of school districts—large and small, urban and rural—are building and publicizing summer meal programs, components of a 48-year-old, federally funded effort to keep low-income children from suffering the health and cognitive effects of summer hunger.

The meal programs take different forms, from cafeteria lunches served during summer school to food trucks stationed at trailer parks.

Although the programs seldom make money, and little data exists to connect summer meals to school-year achievement, district administrators remain convinced their efforts are essential to children’s well-being.

“I just think anytime that they’re fed, they’re happier, they learn better,” says Geri Gilstrap, superintendent of Oklahoma’s 1,350-student Stilwell Public Schools. “Their little bodies are more prepared to learn.”

Start your own summer meal program

  • Get help: The agency that administers the program for your state—often the state education department—has essential expertise.
  • Start early: Paperwork and permissions will take longer than you think. “Start in February if you’re going to do something at the end of May/June,” says Janine Russell, assistant food service director in Colorado Springs School District 11.
  • Think small: “Don’t start at 50 sites—start with two or five and work your way up,” says Kammie Anderson, who coordinates the summer food program in Wichita Public Schools. “Don’t take on more than you can handle.”

Wide range of solutions

In the 2015-16 school year, more than 22 million American children ate free or reduced-price meals through the National School Lunch Program, federal data shows. But in the summer, only a fraction of that number—3 million children in 2016, according to the nonprofit Food Research & Action Center—access free meals. That’s too few, anti-hunger campaigners say.

“Serving just 1 hungry child in 6 is not enough,” the Food Research & Action Center argues in a 2016 report. The participation gap has real consequences, advocates say.

In a 2013 survey conducted for the nonprofit organization Share Our Strength’s No Kid Hungry campaign, nearly 1 in 3 low-income families said they didn’t have enough money for food in the summer; 13 percent said they made ends meet by skipping meals or eating less.    

Seventy-five percent of the 3,100 students in the Clinton City Schools, in rural southeastern North Carolina, qualify for free or reduced-price lunch, says the district’s child nutrition director, Jeff Swartz. “If you have families that depend on that during the school year, then how can we expect these parents to be able to provide these meals for the children during the summer?” Swartz says.    

Schools across the country are bridging that gap with programs tailored to the size and needs of their communities.

Nevada’s sprawling, 320,000-student Clark County School District serves breakfast and lunch at 90 school buildings, while Clinton City prepares meals in the kitchen of the district’s upper elementary school and delivers to eight sites around town, including day care centers and church youth programs.    

Colorado Springs School District 11, which enrolls about 28,000 students, serves 34 sites, half of them with food-delivery vans that set up shop at trailer parks, apartment complexes and parks– anywhere low-income children gather. “If they can’t come to us, we’re going to go to them,” says Janine Russell, the district’s assistant food service director.    

And in Toledo, Ohio, the local nonprofit Connecting Kids to Meals supplies summer food to more than 100 sites, including public schools in the city and nearby towns.  

Schools turn to the organization because “we have the expertise,” says its president, Wendi Huntley. “We have a system that already works.”

Profit is not a priority Summer meals are funded through two federal programs, the Summer Food Service Program and the National School Lunch Program Seamless Summer Option, with different paperwork burdens and per-meal payment rates.

Both target low-income children, but schools where at least half the students qualify for free or reduced-price meals can serve free summer food to any child who shows up.    

Because summer participation is far lower, districts say that after spending money for food, staff and advertising—plus gas for the trucks that deliver to mobile stops—they don’t make money from their summer food programs. At best, the per-meal rate the federal government supplies allows districts to break even.

“We’ve got kids who are hungry, and that’s what’s important to us, and our little bit of profit that we might make over the course of the school year offsets that,” says Paul, of the Wichita district, which enrolls 51,000 students. Economies of scale help make summer programs financially viable, says Signe Anderson, the Food Research & Action Center’s senior child nutrition policy analyst.

“The more kids that you serve, the more the federal dollar stretches,” she says.

Share Our Strength’s website includes a cost calculator to help school leaders estimate revenue, expenses and break-even points (DAmag.me/r8).

When Colorado Springs launched its mobile meal delivery program, Russell used trucks the district already owned. Meals are prepared in central kitchens, and each truck is typically loaded with enough cheeseburgers, pork sliders and chef salads for three lunchtime stops of 30 minutes each.

“The hardest thing is knowing how many kids are going to show up,” she says. “It’s a guessing game.”

Careful planning is crucial to making summer food programs work, say administrators and anti-hunger advocates. Districts need to assess local needs and consult with community groups.

In Ohio, where Connecting Kids to Meals does its work, community partners—including businesses and food banks—meets monthly to discuss how best to reach more hungry children, Huntley says.

“In one community, it might be that a mobile meal program is the best, and in the next school district, it’s inviting different community organizations into the school,” Anderson says. “It’s not a perfect cookie-cutter best practice.”

Start your own summer meal program (cont.)

  • Reach out: Consult with other community groups that work with children and families to figure out what’s needed and where.
  • Site strategically: “If you offer it in a location that people don’t have accessibility to, then you’re not maximizing the reason for the program,” says Stuart Blount, superintendent of North Carolina’s Clinton City Schools.
  • Market creatively: Districts send flyers home in backpacks, take out newspaper and radio ads, post information on their websites, and throw colorful kickoff events to spread the news about free summer food. “It’s currently a program that’s still underutilized,” says Stephanie Joyce, national nutrition advisor at the nonprofit Alliance for a Healthier Generation. “Anything that the schools can do to help get the word out is critical.”

Organize appetizing activities

Research suggests that summer meal programs work best when paired with activities that attract children—whether a summer school class, an enrichment program or a sports camp.

During the school year, Russell of the Colorado Springs district collects books donated by libraries or school staff. In the summer, every child visiting a mobile meal-delivery site gets not only a free meal but also a free book.    

“A meal service program that stands alone and isn’t accompanied by activities often doesn’t have as strong participation, doesn’t have as strong program retention,” says Derrick Lambert, program manager with the Center for Best Practices at Share Our Strength’s campaign.  And an activities program draws more participants when it includes food.

“Feeding the kids is a wonderful way to entice kids and families,” says James A. Hess, superintendent of Minnesota’s Bemidji Area Schools, which serves summer food at cafeterias and mobile sites.    

Yet even as schools expand programs, little data shows that such programs affect children’s attendance, behavior or achievement.

A 2015 analysis commissioned by Share Our Strength found that test scores and graduation rates were higher at Maryland schools serving summer meals than at schools without summer food programs—but it fell short of linking the meals to improved results.

“If a child is inadequately nourished for even a brief period of time, it can permanently affect their cognitive growth and their physical growth and development,” says Ross Fraser of Feeding America, a network of food banks. “So it’s critically important to find a way to get every child fed in the summer.” 


Deborah Yaffe is a freelance writer in New Jersey.