Friday, July 1, 2011

South Dakota Feeds Kids in the Summer

During the school year, most children have a reliable source of lunch through the National School Lunch Program.  In fiscal year 2010 over 20 million children received those lunches free of charge or at reduced rates because their family’s income is low.  That’s over 65% of all meals served under the National School Lunch Program.

But what do those 20 million children do during the summer when school is out?  Many are at risk of hunger.  Families struggle to stretch their food dollars and food pantries often report increased demand during the summer months.  One program meant to fill the summer gap is the Summer Food Service Program, established by congress in 1975.
Julie McCord, South Dakota
Child and Adult Nutrition Services
How does it work? 

To find out, we interviewed Julie McCord, who manages all of the state's summer feeding programs through Child and Adult Nutrition Services, South Dakota Department of Education.  Here are the highlights of this national program:
  • A site may qualify for the Summer Food Service Program (or related programs such as the National School Lunch Program’s Seamless Summer Option) if at least half the children they expect to serve are eligible for free or reduced-price school meals (family income below 185% of the poverty line).  This means that “closed” programs, such as day camps or school programs for which children register, qualify based on the eligibility of the individual children.  “Open” programs, in which any child ages 1-18 can come to eat, qualify based on the eligibility statistics in their geographic area.
  • Once the site is eligible, all of the children can eat for free.  This greatly simplifies the bookkeeping for program directors and allows children who might just miss the eligibility criterion to eat for free.
  • Sites can choose to serve breakfast, morning snack, lunch, afternoon snack, or dinner (but not both lunch and dinner, for which the reimbursement rates are higher).
  • The USDA regulations for staff training, food quality and safety, meal plan options, and rules such as the meal components that all children must be served are very similar to those in place for the National School Lunch Program.
Pearl Haux prepares lunch
The Summer Food Service Program we visited is located at the Mobridge-Pollock School in Mobridge SD (population 3465).  This beautiful new facility educates students from upper elementary through high school, all approximately 700 of whom are fed during the school year by Food Supervisor Pearl Haux and her staff.  During the summer, Pearl continues to feed breakfast and lunch, to all children in the community who come.  Adults can also eat here by paying the approximate cost of the meal.

Pearl said that it’s very hard to predict the number who will come – this year lunch has been served to between about 90 and 160.  The day we were there, lunch was served to 127 children and 12 adults (including us!)  Pearl estimated that she sees about 400 different children over the course of the summer.

We really liked this program, and here are some of the reasons:
  • This is a community program.  The school superintendent believes that the community was generous in building this beautiful school, so the school should give back to the community.  In addition to breakfast and lunch, the school hosts open gym for kids and various camps such as a wrestling camp.  Kids from those programs and the nearby town pool and practice fields also eat here.
  • The school is located in a pedestrian-friendly neighborhood, so most kids appeared to walk over for lunch.  We talked with one set of 6 kids, older ones babysitting younger ones, who told us they ate here most days and were walking over to Grandma’s house after lunch.  Parents or daycare providers came with some of the younger kids. 
  • Pearl knows the children she feeds, knows what they like, and truly loves feeding them well.  The day we were there, the menu was soft tacos filled with beef and a variety of toppings that the kids could add themselves, corn, watermelon, and skim milk.  We thought it was delicious, and so did the kids, though they told us that their favorite meal was what Pearl calls “super nachos.”  Pearl had attended training the previous week on the new USDA nutrition guidelines so she could begin implementing them before they're required in 2012.
  • This program runs for the entire summer, unlike many that do not, due to financial or staffing limitations.  In SD, only 46% of the summer food service programs this year plan to operate for the entire summer.
  • The availability of the program and the menus are well-advertised in town.  Kids told us they checked the menus on the local cable TV station or in the newspaper.
Probably the biggest problem with summer food service programs is that there are not nearly enough to meet the need.  Julie said that when school is in session, more than 56,000 South Dakota children receive free or reduced-price meals through the National School Lunch Program.  During the summer of 2010, only about 10,000 children were fed. 

This summer, there are 115 locations for summer feeding in South Dakota, operated by 66 sponsors – 35 sponsors operating Summer Food Service Programs are schools, Boys and Girls Clubs, YMCAs, and other local agencies; 31 sponsors are schools that are using the Seamless Summer option to continue their regular National School Lunch Program for some or all of the summer. 

In each of the last few years, Julie has succeeded in increasing the number of Summer Food Service Programs operating in South Dakota.  Each winter, she identifies areas that would qualify and contacts schools and other organizations to try to recruit them to sponsor summer food service programs. Sponsors may be most any school or governmental or non-profit organization.  She asks food pantries to help identify local organizations that might be suitable sponsors.  And she helps all applicants through the lengthy application and program planning process, including offering training in the details of the program for any applicant.

Nevertheless, more sites are needed if all hungry kids are to be fed during the summer. What are the obstacles? 
  • Cost.  Many organizations and schools that would be eligible can’t afford to offer summer food.  USDA does reimburse at a congressionally-set rate per meal, but that reimbursement rarely covers the entire cost of the program.  Even if the reimbursement covers food and labor costs, it may not be sufficient to cover additional costs, such as utilities, facilities rental, or transporting children to the meal or meals to the children.
  • Staff.  Sometimes qualified food service workers are difficult to find.  Regular staff may not want to continue working through the summer, and other potential staff may lack the training or readiness to follow USDA rules.
  • Facilities.  Meals don’t have to be hot or prepared in professional kitchens, but even so, sometimes appropriate, food-safe facilities are not available in a community.  For example, in some small communities, there is no school; the children attend boarding schools or are bused to school during the school year, but are home during the summer.  If a school kitchen is not an option, Julie looks for another site that meets the requirements.  It might be a church, a community center, a Boys and Girls Club, or a tribal building.  But often these facilities in poor communities are in disrepair, have water or sewer issues, or are otherwise unsafe for preparing and serving food to children.  Julie told us about one program sponsor that is busing kids to another facility until it can bring its own facility up to code. 

    There’s no federal money available to help with expenses such as facility repair.  But we have heard that other hunger relief organizations, such as Share Our Strength and ConAgra Foundation, may be trying to help in this area.
It’s disappointing that more children aren’t being reached with the Summer Food Service Program.  Apparently, the USDA agrees.  In addition to encouraging more use of the program, they’re considering another idea, adding additional money to a family’s SNAP or WIC benefits in the summer to cover their increased expenses for school children’s meals.

We think that the Summer Food Service Program offers a very good program for feeding kids.  Pearl agrees.  She said she’d actually like to see the National School Lunch Program run more like Summer Food Service Program.  “Many of the middle class families in Mobridge are really hurting, but they make too much money to qualify for free or reduced price lunches (or other benefits like SNAP and heating assistance).  So I wish that I could serve all students breakfast and lunch during the school year, just like I do in the summer.”

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