Growing up, I attended a small school without a cafeteria; though I could always count on egg-salad sandwiches for lunch prepared by my parents, some of my classmates were not so fortunate. It was not uncommon for our teachers to share part of their meals, or to bring in food for us to snack on during the day so students would not go hungry.
Nutrition programs help to alleviate hunger in many schools around the country, providing low-income children with free and reduced-cost meals. These programs also promote healthy eating habits and contribute to students’ readiness to learn – but what happens when school is out for the summer?
Unfortunately, without these consistent, nutritious meals, many children go hungry. In fact, one in five children in Oklahoma are at risk of going hungry every day. It’s part of my project here at the Regional Food Bank, to find solutions to this “hunger gap” over the summer months. During my year here as an AmeriCorps Member, I’ll be working with schools to develop practical ways to resolve this issue; that’s my job as the Child Nutrition Advocate at the Regional Food Bank.
One way to do so is through the Summer Food Service Program (SFSP), a federal program that reimburses schools and nonprofit organizations that provide meals to children over the summer. This year, the Regional Food Bank sponsored 45 such sites around the state, serving meals in conjunction with summer school, day camps and recreational activities. Our summer food programs were able to serve a total of 97,975 meals to approximately 1,680 children, with a reassuring response: over 63% of parents reported their children would not have had enough to eat without a SFSP in their community.
Despite our progress, however, there are many more children in Oklahoma without access to nutritious food over the summer – which is why we’re focusing our efforts on encouraging schools to adopt this program. Schools are often the best locations for SFSPs, since most are already familiar with nutrition programs and have adequate facilities. Still, this summer only 112 of the 537 schools districts in Oklahoma provided a summer food program within their district.
Though schools recognize the benefits of providing these meals, many do not offer the program because of the lengthy application process and high costs of operating their cafeterias over the summer. Many schools, especially those in rural areas, also find that children lack transportation without a regular bus schedule; or they simply lack awareness that a program exists. Low student participation, in spite of high need, drives up the costs of the program even more.
Our goal this year is to enable schools to offer SFSPs, particularly in areas with a high need for a program. I plan to create toolkits with resources and suggestions to help schools with:
- Budgeting, to ensure schools are reimbursed for the meals they serve
- Purchasing food in bulk to reduce costs
- Partnerships with local nonprofits and faith-based organizations, to help cover costs
- Menu planning to ensure children are eating nutritious foods
- Providing enrichment and recreational activities, to ensure children’s health and well-being;
- Publicity of the program, to increase participation
- Providing transportation to centrally located sites – our biggest hurdle in Oklahoma
We hope our efforts will allow more children in Oklahoma to spend their summer enjoying the sun, instead of worrying where their next meal will come from – so they can return to school ready to succeed.
Ways you can help:
- Encourage your local non-profit organizations to run a Summer Food Service Program.
- Contact your local superintendent and inquire about summer food programs in your school district.
- Volunteer to organize and/or staff a summer food program at your local school.
For more information, visit http://www.fns.usda.gov/cnd/Summer.
If you’d like to get involved in the Regional Food Bank’s efforts to eradicate childhood hunger in Oklahoma, please help by contacting your state representatives through our handy online advocacy tool. It just takes a few seconds to help change lives.
- Suma Ananthaswamy, AmeriCorps Member/Childhood Hunger Advocate