What’s New in Summer Meal Programs?

Districts increase summer meal programs with new initiatives, trucks.

Two trucks deliver meals to locations throughout
New York City.

Speaking about child nutrition reauthorization last year, Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack said one of his main priorities was to increase student access to school meals on non-school days, especially during the summer months. The U.S. Department of Agriculture will launch several new initiatives this summer that it hopes will address the access issue. FSD talked with Paul Baumgartner, director of nutrition services at Grand Rapids (Mich.) Public Schools. The city was selected as a pilot site for one of the USDA’s initiatives. FSD also talked with directors in New York City and Reynoldsburg, Ohio, about their answer to the access problem: meal trucks.

Grand Rapids Public Schools:

Grand Rapids, Mich., is one of two cities selected by the USDA to pilot the Summer Electronic Benefit Transfer for Children (SEBT) program. El Paso, Texas, is the other city.

The pilot uses the WIC (Women, Infants and Children) model to distribute electronic debit cards to families of 2,500 low-income students in Grand Rapids. Those cards can then be used to purchase WIC-approved food items for the students.

“The ultimate aim is to supplement the existing summer feeding programs that are in place now,” Baumgartner says. “The existing model has children coming to a community site and eating a meal. Historically that program has not been nearly as successful as the national school lunch program. Participation is well below 50% nationally during the summer months. We serve 20,000 meals a day during the school year and during the summer months we serve a maximum of 1,400 meals a day. The SEBT program is attempting to reach out to the parents directly. Instead of having children come to a common feeding site, they provide families that are eligible with the electronic benefit card, using a WIC model.”

The district’s child nutrition program’s role in the pilot was to provide data to the USDA to select participating students. “We have the data in terms of who is eligible for free and reduced-price meals,” Baumgartner says. “We provided the conduit for the USDA to reach out to targeted families. We also are well-versed in communicating with these families, so we each had our own ways of reaching out to these families and getting them to respond to the survey and making sure the information they are providing is accurate. We’re the foot soldiers, if you will. We know where they are and we know how to reach them.”

Baumgartner thinks the pilot will not decrease the amount of students who go to summer feeding sites to receive meals. He adds that a program like this one would work particularly well in rural communities where transportation is a barrier to setting up summer feeding programs.

Baumgartner says the criteria to be selected for participation in the study included having an electronic student database, a high free and reduced rate—the district’s is 85%—and an existing summer feeding program already in place.

Reynoldsburg School District:

Last summer this school district in Ohio started serving low-income students summer meals out of a food van. The program is expanding this year, from four sites to seven. The sites are selected by studying data that shows where large populations of students who receive free and reduced-price meals live. Because the sites the van visits are in areas that are considered high poverty by the Census Bureau, Connie Fatseas, foodservice director, says the sites are considered open, meaning any child between the ages of one and 18 can receive a free meal.

The van stays at each location for 30 minutes before leaving for the next location. Students receive a two-week rotational menu along with times the van will be at each site before the school year is over.

Fatseas visits each site before the program starts to ensure that things run smoothly. Fatseas and a contact person at each site decide on a location for the van. Fatseas says entrances to swimming pools are a good location because car traffic is light and foot traffic is high. Each site also provides an indoor space in case of rain.

The district’s high school also provides summer meals. At the high school between 250 and 275 meals were served each day last summer. Between 400 to 500 meals were served from the van last summer.

“It was a good experience for everybody involved,” Fatseas says. “The students would see the same lunch lady in the fall and they would say I saw you during the summer. Kids love to be able to know grown-ups. We keep the kids fed and connected to the school.”

Fatseas says it was important to have the same two employees working the van. One person hands out the meals while the other keeps track of the number of meals served. “The first week many parents would show up at the site with their children just to confirm that everything was on the up and up. If they saw different faces, the children and the grown ups didn’t feel quite [as much trust]. The two workers enjoyed it too because they learned about the students’ lives.”

New York Schools:

At the nation’s largest school district, two food trucks will be delivering meals to students throughout the summer. Last summer the district had one truck, which was provided through a partnership with Share Our Strength, a national anti-hunger organization. The district teamed up with The Walmart Foundation for funding for the trucks this summer. The trucks make stops at parks in each of the five boroughs.

“We’ve been working with the parks department to be able to expand our service reach,” Eric Goldstein, chief executive of School Support Services, NYC Department of Education, says. “The great thing about trucks is that if you need to change the schedule it’s no big deal. Last year was really successful for us. We weren’t sure how it was going to go. With our limited trial last year we did about 15,000 extra meals.”

Goldstein says the menus for the trucks will be similar to last year’s with cold, prepackaged items making up the bulk of the offerings.

Goldstein says one lesson learned after last year’s pilot regarded restocking supplies. “If the trucks need to resupply we are not going to have them come back,” he says. “It wastes a lot of time. It’s going to be like mid-air refueling. We’re going to have our trucks go out to replenish the supply of food on the trucks so they can stay out there. We’re also going to do different parks at different times. We worked more closely with the parks department this year to coordinate the best locations for our trucks to go.”