While summer feeding programs are commonplace in school districts across the country, foodservice operators still struggle to get the word out and kids in.
Many districts are scaling back or discontinuing their summer feeding programs due to low participation, citing staffing costs and other issues that make it difficult to break even and provide a profitable program.
“We need to find a way to encourage that participation,” Tom Freitas—foodservice director for Traverse City Area Public Schools in Traverse City, Mich.—told Record Eagle News. “We are open to ideas as long as it fits with our idea of a self-sustaining entity. We can’t lose money on the program.”
In addition to empty bellies, low participation in summer feeding programs comes at a high cost. States failing to serve a ratio of 40 students with summer meals to every 100 students participating in free and reduced-price lunch programs miss out on millions of dollars in federal funding, according to a report recently released by the Food Research & Action Center.
Some school districts have used technology, community partnerships and mindfulness of student behavior during summer to help them serve more food and take fuller advantage of the federal program. Here’s how.
Switch up communication channels
Wayne Township School District in Indianapolis began ramping up communications this summer to increase visibility of new feeding sites and times. The school retrofitted two buses last year in order to access more children, but Director of Child Nutrition Services Sara Gasiorowski says participation is a continued pain point. This year, the superintendent voiced automated phone calls, and teachers regularly sent flyers home with children to help spread the word.
At Floyd County School District in Rome, Ga., substituting a large-scale kick-off event for a traditional press conference rallied almost 600 kids to the program’s first day. “We served meals, gave away prizes and had bounce houses,” says Donna Carver, Floyd County’s school nutrition director. “Families and kids who were just in the park came over and heard about the program.”
Nutrition services at Greeley-Evans School District went the route of technology to keep families in the know. Families and locals can visit the mobile app Nutrislice to get updated menus, feeding locations and times. The Greeley, Colo., district also offers a texting service where sending the word “food” or “comida” will show the closest available feeding sites.
Adopt a childlike mindset
Publicizing the program is only half the battle. Danielle Bock, Greeley-Evans’ operations coordinator, realized that some kids were simply not interested in the feeding locations offered. “The challenge is getting kids to come to a school during the summer,” she says. “We’re addressing that issue with a food truck. Giving kids access to a shiny red food truck is more appealing than going to their little brothers’ school cafeteria.”
Adding a food truck not only increased participation, but also helped the district reach more children. “We can go to the park where the kids already are,” Bock says. The benefits of the truck don’t end with summer—the district plans to use the addition to offer new food options to high school students during the school year and cater after-hours community events.
Other districts supplement meals with activities to reel kids in and make a broader summer impact. Michelle Helms, director of child nutrition services for Midland Independent School District in Midland, Texas, noticed offering coloring sheets and games dramatically affected student participation. “[The kids] remembered the puzzle and came back,” she says. “The first day we fed 15 kids. Today, we fed 49.”
Identify unused resources
Recognizing where summer feeding could further address student needs helped Floyd County’s program grow. Six years in, the district currently serves an average of 3,500 meals a day as opposed to 200 during its first year. Carver attributes the growth in part to an extended program length, as well as a community partnership offering weekend meals during the summer months. The USDA reimburses meals served on any day of the week, giving school districts the flexibility to provide more options.
“Utilize your resources,” says Jeremy West, Greeley-Evans’ director of nutrition services. “Use a retired school bus or just put some banners and graphics on delivery vehicles. Utilize community resources and just start—just do it.”