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Free Meals for Kids During Summer Break!

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Learn how free meals for kids during summer makes a difference in our nation’s kids!

No kid should ever go hungry! Good nutrition helps fuel their body, brain and life’s potential! Each day across America, over 30 million students receive a lunch funded by the National School Lunch Program (NSLP). Seventy percent of these, roughly 21 million students, come from low-income families and receive a free or reduced-price lunch. What happens to these 21 million underserved children during the summer months, when school is not in session? Where do their meals come from if their family cannot afford to provide them? This is the purpose of the Summer Food Service Program (SFSP), established in the 1970’s by the USDA.

The SFSP provides at least 1 meal each day to children from low-income communities while school is not in session. The SFSP has been growing consistently since its inception, however, the USDA is continually seeking to boost participation and spread awareness of the program within communities across the nation. We caught up with Kevin Concannon, Under Secretary for the Food, Nutrition, and Consumer Services division of the USDA to learn more about the Summer Food Service Program. Read on to learn more about the Summer Food Service Program, how to receive free meals for your child, and how to increase your community’s involvement in the program.

What is the Summer Food Service Program?

  • A program funded by the USDA and coordinated by state governments to provide meals to children in low-income communities while school is not in session.

How does this program make a difference in the lives of children?

  • Last summer, 3.5 million youth were served at 42,000 different locations across the United States. These children were served nutritious meals that met the National School Lunch Program guidelines every day while school was not in session. Because of the SFSP, millions of children did not have to worry about hunger and food insecurity over the summer months.

In which communities are the meals served?

  • Universal free summer meals are provided to all children under the age of 18 in communities/school districts in which at least 50% of the students are eligible for free or reduced-price lunch.
  • In higher-income communities, summer meals may still be provided through summer school programs.

Why should our tax dollars support programs such as the SFSP?

  • The government began providing meals to students in the 1940s when it discovered that young men recruited for the military were too malnourished to withstand basic training.
  • Traditionally, meals were provided year-round, during the school year and accompanying summer school sessions. However, over the past 20 years, schools have faced budget cuts that have forced them to cut extra-curricular summer school activities. Without these programs and the meals they provide, it is difficult for many children to meet their nutritional needs throughout the summer.
  • Proper nutrition is essential for all American citizens, but especially for our children. Children from low-income communities are at increased risk for hunger and malnutrition, which can adversely affect their school performance and ability to learn.
  • If we want to raise healthy children and a healthy nation, it is important that these children receive nutritionally adequate meals year-round.

How can a community know if they qualify for free summer meals?

  • Parents and community members can contact their local school districts to determine whether their community is eligible to provide universal free summer meals.
  • School administrators of low-income communities will be able to direct parents to the nearest SFSP meal service location and provide more details specific to their community.

At which locations are the meals served?

  • Schools, churches, YMCAs, Boys & Girls Clubs, food banks, libraries, parks, or any other interested community organizations may provide free summer meals to all children under the age of 18 in eligible communities.
  • Call the National Hunger Hotline to find the SFSP meal site nearest you. The toll-free phone number is 1-866-3-HUNGRY (1-866-348-6479) or 1-877-8-HAMBRE (1-877-842-6273) for Spanish. Operators are available 9am-6pm EST Monday through Friday.
  • Information for the upcoming 2014 summer season will be available throughout May and June. Look for information in your district about two weeks before the school year ends.

How many meals are served each day?

  • Meal schedules vary by community, but most sites serve at least one meal per day, typically lunch. Some communities also offer breakfast, snack, or dinner meals, free of charge.
  • Last summer, 169 million free meals were served. The goal for this summer is to serve at least 179 million meals.

How can my child receive free summer meals? Do I need to fill out paperwork?

  • Simply find the nearest SFSP meal site/schedule, and show up! All children between the ages of 1 and 17 will be served, no questions asked.
  • Your child does not need to be a student to receive the meals, and there is no paperwork to complete or eligibility forms to fill out if you live in an SFSP eligible community.

What can a community center do if they are interested in serving meals?

  • Any interested community organization can become a meal site or sponsor by contacting their state’s Department of Education Child Nutrition Division or Department of Agriculture.
  • Alternatively, organizations may be able to partner with current SFSP sites. The original site will produce the meals, and the partner site will help serve the meals to the community from their location.
  • For more information on who to contact about becoming a meal site, sponsor, or partner, visit the Food and Nutrition Services State Directory.
  • Additional Toolkits are available online -learn more about how the Summer Food Service Program is operated.

How are the community centers funded to provide summer meals?

  • Once the community center has completed a state training program, funding will be provided prior to the summer season to allow for the purchasing of summer meals and hiring of staff.

How can parents, teachers, dietitians, and other members of the community help spread the word about the Summer Food Service Program?

What are some creative ways communities have increased participation in the program?

  • One notable district in Florida prepares meals at a local high school kitchen and then transports the meals via school buses to local parks and libraries where kids congregate.
  • Meals may be served from anywhere, even a blanket at a park works. The most important thing is to make the meals accessible to children of the community.

It is critical that we work together to raise awareness of the SFSP to ensure that young children across the nation have access to nutritious meals year-round. Kids should not have to worry about hunger and food insecurity when school is not in session. Spread the word about the SFSP throughout your community today, and work with local organizations to increase the number of meal sites in your area.

Photo Credit: USDA

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About the Author

Picture of Erica Julson, MS, RDN

Erica Julson, MS, RDN

Erica is a registered dietitian nutritionist who specializes in helping individuals develop healthier relationships with food, & helping families develop healthy habits that will last a lifetime. Her nutrition counseling philosophy centers around eliminating dieting, and instead, listening to and trusting the body. She empowers her clients to become mindful and intuitive eaters, and helps parents pass on these powerful messages to their children. She runs a nutrition counseling practice in Los Angeles, California, and spends her free time in the kitchen with her friends and family.

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