During the school year, nearly 32 million children receive a free or reduced price lunch through the National School Lunch Program. During the summer months most schools – and school meal programs – close down, leaving children without an opportunity for nutritious meals each day.
Here at the USDA, we want to make sure that children who get a substantial portion of their nutritious food through school programs can have healthy food during those “gap” periods. That’s where the Summer Food Service Program (SFSP) comes in. This federally-funded program operates through partnerships between the USDA, state agencies, and local governments and organizations. We know that a healthy lunch can keep youth mentally engaged for their return to school in the fall. We also know that the families who struggle to feed their children during the school year continue to struggle in the summer. The SFSP allows these families to stretch their food dollars, while making sure that every child who needs a healthy lunch gets one. Only about 3 million children participate in the SFSP. That’s far fewer than the number of children receiving a school lunch, so we know we need to reach more children.
But we can’t do it alone. We need our partners.
That is why I want to share some model collaborators in the Midwest Region that, in the bitter cold of winter, are already working diligently to make sure that children in their communities have lunch every single day of the summer.
One such partnership is in Chicago and involves state and local agencies and several anti-hunger organizations who all decided they can accomplish more as a team than on their own. For the past six years, the Illinois State Board of Education (ISBE), Chicago Public Schools, the Illinois Hunger Coalition (IHC), and other major SFSP sponsors have been partnering with us at the USDA to increase summer meals. We dub ourselves the “Chicago Summer Food Work Group.” We discuss successes and challenges and how to reach more hungry kids.
Over the years, we’ve learned to include an outreach flier in the backpacks of all 400,000 Chicago Public School students at the end of the school year. The flier lists phone numbers and a web site to help parents locate a SFSP in their area. Another successful practice is the mapping technology ISBE started using last summer to target underserved neighborhoods. The maps generated helped us identify areas of poverty without feeding sites. Thanks in part to the collaboration of many, the Chicago Summer Food Work Group saw an increase of 9% in SFSP meals served to Chicago children last summer.
In Ohio, the Department of Education, Senator Sherrod Brown’s office and the Ohio Association of Second Harvest Foodbanks (OASHF) partners with us at the USDA to share resources and plan a summit in January. Why so early? So SFSP sites and sponsors can share best practices and learn from each other, and so they can get an early start on planning their summer meals strategy. In fact, our Under Secretary for Food, Nutrition and Consumer Services, Kevin Concannon, recently spoke at the second annual summit in Columbus. At the conference, OASHF announced the return of its AmeriCorps VISTA volunteers for a fourth summer. These volunteers help promote and expand the SFSP in Ohio. And the Cleveland Foodbank shared a participation map it created with assistance from the Department of Education.
As these partnerships demonstrate, collaboration in the winter yields healthy kids in the summer. So join us in the partnership to end child hunger. Participate in a Summer Food Service Program Webinar and learn what you can do to make sure children don’t go hungry. We need organizations to serve as feeding sites, as sponsoring organizations and to conduct community outreach so kids know where to find lunch. No matter how you help, you’ll make a difference.