Only 14 percent of children eligible for subsidized summer lunches receive one, according to new analysis from California Food Policy Advocates. Further, one in five low-income schools have no open summer meal site within one mile and more than 800 public schools have no open meal site within five miles.
The numbers speak to the challenges that many of California’s K-12 public school students face in getting fresh, healthy meals and to the system’s gaps in coverage. Overall, about three in five California public school students (2 million children) live in low-income households and are eligible to receive free or reduced-price school meals — but many go without them.
During the long break in the summer months, school districts and community organizations can help bridge this gap by providing summer meals. The deadline to apply to be a summer meal provider is June 1. In addition to feeding children, the benefits can include improved learning and classroom behavior, and offsetting diabetes and other health concerns.
“Our goal is to fight hunger and provide nutrition education,” said Jose Ocadiz, branch manager for Lincoln Acres Library in southern San Diego County, which provides summer meals.. “We know families who don’t qualify for help but really need it.”
School meal funding from state and federal programs also helps bring in revenue to communities that are often high-poverty areas. For example, CFPA determined that if summer meal programs reached half of the low-income children across California, the state would receive an additional $41.6 million in federal funding.
Despite these positive contributions, summer meal lunches have declined in the past two years. The reasons for the drop are unclear.
“When it comes to summer meals as a whole, there are variety of factors that can come into play,” said Tia Shimada, director of programs at the Oakland-based CFPA. “One of the challenges with measuring access in terms of sites is the variation in operating days and operating hours. For example, a site open for two weeks with one meal service per day provides a different level of access than a site open for four weeks with two meal services per day.”
Despite the decrease in summer meal lunches and concern over programs, both the state and federal government offer options for districts and county offices to consider.
The California Department of Education offers the Seamless Summer Food Option through which sponsors receive the “free” (highest) rate of federal reimbursement for each meal served. In return, these sites must serve all meals for free to children and youth and must be in low-income areas or serve low-income participants.
At the federal level, the U.S. Department of Agriculture Food and Nutrition Service is sponsoring a Farm to Summer week from June 24–28. The initiative aims to connect children with local agriculture and nutrition education. Summer meal program providers can sponsor activities such as serving local foods or offering enrichment activities.
WHAT BOARD MEMBERS CAN DO
To help support summer meal programs in their district or county office of education, board members are encouraged to:
• Plan ahead for staffing, logistics and outreach
• Collaborate with school nutrition directors and identify community need and partners such as the YMCA and the public library
• Promote district summer meal programs and reach out to school staff, families, neighboring districts and community leaders
• Remind families concerned about immigration status that students do not have to disclose family history information to receive meals