School is out and in your community and county, there are hungry or food-insecure kids. Without the routine of school food, many kids might not know where or when their next meal will come from.
One in six children lives with hunger in the United States, according to No Kid Hungry, or about 13 million children. Even children above poverty levels in low-income homes have food insecurity. “11.8 percent of American households were food insecure at least sometime during the year in 2017, meaning they lacked access to enough food for an active, healthy life for all household members” states a report from the Economic Research Service of the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
In our food-rich country, we have hungry kids. To me, there is no excuse for it.
Last summer, our daughters spent time in a summer program in Pelican Rapids, Minn., while we stayed at our lake home and I drove into Fargo to work. I noticed kids not in the summer program walking into the school to eat and asked about it. Any child ages 1-18 can eat in Pelican Rapids, breakfast and lunch. There are no eligibility rules for kids, no questions asked, just come on in to eat.
One day, I remember it was pouring rain and there were kids with umbrellas still making their way to the school to eat. It may seem simple, but I was overjoyed to see all kinds of kids be fed in a small, rural town in Minnesota.
How is it funded? I learned it’s through the USDA’s Summer Food Service Program, also known as the summer meals program. The program fed 1.5 million meals and snacks to kids ages 18 and under in 2018. State education agencies in most states manage the program. Local programs need a sponsor to run a Summer Food Service Program.
Who can be a sponsor and help feed children in communities? According to the USDA, public or private nonprofit schools, units of local, municipal, county, tribal, or state government, private nonprofit organizations, public or private nonprofit camps or public or private nonprofit universities or colleges.
Communities and areas that are either census eligible or have more than 50% of families on the free and reduced breakfast and lunch program qualify for the program. Meaning if your school district is less than 50% on free and reduced lunch, you still may qualify because of your overall census data.
My observation is that many rural areas would qualify to have summer food programs. But when I searched for programs near me in south-central North Dakota, they were all more than 100 miles away, in more populated towns or on Native American reservations.
Why is the USDA program not reaching more rural kids, who are surrounded by farms and ranches that produce food but may be hungry at home? I called Linda Schloer, director of Child Nutrition Programs at the North Dakota Department of Public Instruction to learn more.
Linda shared with me successful examples of the summer meals program in North Dakota and obstacles that keep it from catching on in rural areas. Some communities have tried it but because of low participation or not being able to reach kids in rural areas, the program hasn’t worked. She said more partners are needed to get involved as sponsors.
If you’re a part of a nonprofit, you can sponsor and help to make sure kids are fed.
It doesn’t have to be held at your school. Meals can be served at a park, where kids are already playing and comfortable coming over for breakfast and lunch. Set up at the public swimming pool. My favorite idea Linda shared with me is for a mobile summer food program, like a food truck for kids in your county.
I dreamed a little about the rural food truck idea. It could serve late breakfast to the 30 young kids I saw playing baseball at the park the other morning and then travel 26 miles to another town in our sparsely populated county where kids are at a basketball camp this week. A rural food truck could have set rural stopping points to fill some of the neediest areas.
While any child age 18 and under is eligible to eat a free meal in the Summer Food Program, their parents are not eligible. Schloer said Missouri Slope United Way is paying for adult meals in Bismarck and Mandan, N.D., this summer.
By having a sponsor pay for adult meals, it brings more kids to the table. Their parents bring them to breakfast and lunch and eat with them. Any opportunity for kids to eat a healthy meal with their parents is positive, I think. Of course, adults can pay if they choose to, but it is not required, thanks to United Way’s donation for adult meals.
Thank you to those managing and serving summer food programs to feed kids. I’d like to learn about other ideas or successful rural summer food programs, whether public or privately funded, and do an upcoming story on one or two. If you have examples, send me a note firstname.lastname@example.org.
And if you are passionate about feeding all kinds of kids in your area, you can be a jumpstart to your community having a program by next summer. Learn more at summerfood.usda.gov.