When you strip away the daily fires put out by a K-12 foodservice director—sorting out a mistaken delivery, troubleshooting with a staffer or negotiating with a prospective hire—the common thread is feeding hungry children. While 22 million students currently rely on free or reduced-price lunches through the National School Lunch Program, in most schools around the country, solely offering school lunch is a relic of the past. Read on to see how operators are bringing more to the table to address the hunger needs under their schools’ roofs and beyond.
1. A rising need
I feel like our district has made huger a higher priority in the [five years] that I’ve been here,” says Sharon Glosson, executive director of school nutrition services for North East Independent School District, which serves 67,000 students on 68 campuses in Bexar County, Texas. Her district’s free and reduced-price meal rate is 48%. “I feel like the demographic of our district has changed over time,” she adds. “The school district tends, within our city of San Antonio, to have the perception of a wealthier school district, and like many districts we have seen our economically disadvantaged numbers rise over time.”
In Rome, Ga., where Donna Carver works as child nutrition director for Floyd County Schools, hunger increased as a result of the recession and has remained. In the past year, she says, Floyd County has lost students while seeing an increase in free and reduced-price meal numbers; her district now feeds about 10,000 students, 68% of whom receive free or reduced-price meals, in 18 schools.
“I know here in the South, we were late to join the recession, and we were late leaving [it],” Carver says. “In rural areas, we often are late to join the trends whether they be fashion trends or economic trends, so I think we’re also late with the hunger trend.”
2. Leading from the top
Some operators say they see an increase in hunger awareness rather than hunger itself. “My perception isn’t that there’s more hunger in the country; there’s just more discussion and there’s more awareness,” says Ann Cooper, director of food services for Boulder Valley School District in Colorado, which has a 20% free and reduced-price lunch population. “I think what we saw under Healthy Hunger-Free Kids and the Obama Administration and especially Michelle [Obama], there was so much discussion about hungry kids, hunger came to the forefront.”
MaryKate Harrison, general manager of student nutrition services for Hillsborough County Public Schools in Tampa, Fla., also points to the lasting impact of the Obama administration’s initiatives.
“I think Michelle Obama did a lot for highlighting food deserts in our communities, the need to be more proactive, putting in gardens, having local produce sold in places, making it more accessible to our community,” Harrison says. “I think there was a lot of talk about, how do we get better food to more people? I think that kind of encompasses that whole hunger issue—not just for children, but for whole families.”
Local government has also played a role for some districts. “In the last year, we had a state congressman that has made hunger a priority in his congressional district,” Glosson says. “He actually just passed legislation to allow for more ways to donate food. I think a lot of the changes I saw in five years have [been driven by] people who have come into a position that have a passion to help kids ... in all areas.”
3. More all-school support
In foodservice, we’ve always been concerned about [hunger], but other departments in the district [have become more aware],” Glosson says. “It has opened up opportunities for us to expand summer meal programs whereas some people maybe in the past thought, if they’re not title schools, they don’t need summer meals; those kids have foods at home. But as we know, even within a lower free and reduced school, you still have kids that are going there that rely on the school meals.”
Harrison, of Hillsborough County Public Schools, says she has also seen increased support from district leadership in recent years. “I think our principals are far more open to the idea now of having summer school sites where they are truly open sites—and that’s something we had to sell to our principals, the thought of ‘strangers’ coming into the school, wanting a meal,” she says. “Now [a student] and all their siblings [who aren’t yet students] can come and have a meal.”