Feed The Need For Nutrition

By Jen Adach

Many parks and recreation programs across the country are making a huge difference in their communities by providing safe environments for children during the summer months. Summer can be a time of nutritional uncertainty, lost physical activity, and academic atrophy for children, especially low-income children.  With school and school meals suddenly unavailable, kids may fall behind in reading and math, fall out of touch with friends and teachers, and fall into eating habits that threaten both obesity and malnutrition. Kids also lose the time and space for sports and play, as many working parents tell their children to stay indoors for safety reasons. But parks and recreation programs are answering parents’ concerns by providing a space where children can gather, and offering enrichment activities that keep children learning and engaged. These programs are also addressing hunger and nutrition concerns by serving meals to children in their care.

Actually, serving meals at a summer program may be easier than one might think. The Summer Food Service Program (SFSP), a federal nutrition program, reimburses organizations for serving free meals and snacks to low-income children 18 years and younger when school is not in session. Local government agencies, school districts, and nonprofits are eligible to participate. To receive reimbursement, an organization that participates as a sponsor must serve meals that meet USDA nutrition guidelines.

Oftentimes, sponsors find that serving meals draws more children to their programs. Dollars and cents also can add up. For example, a summer program serving breakfast and lunch to 50 children for 8 weeks (or a 40-day program) receives approximately $11,250 in federal funding through SFSP.

Strategies For Success
There’s never a bad time to start thinking about serving summer meals. In fact, winter is often an excellent time to do much of the leg work. The Food Research and Action Center’s (FRAC) Summer Nutrition Programs Implementation Guide & Calendar provides a monthly outline of steps to take and questions to consider. Visit http://frac.org/federal-foodnutrition-programs/summer-programs/summer-nutrition-programs-implementation-calendars-and-guide/

Here are some of the biggest questions to address:

1. How do you get the word out about summer food?
With limited awareness, families may not realize they are welcome to send their children to a park for a free meal. For parks and recreation centers that are operating an open site (see sidebar), additional efforts are required to promote their summer meal programs to the community. Participation often grows by advertising through local schools, public-service announcements, and social media. Contacting local religious leaders and posting banners and flyers across the city also are great tactics.

Tip: Reach out to the local schools and work with them to share information about the free program. As a part of the Healthy Hunger Free Kids Act, schools are required to work with participating SFSP providers to inform families of the availability and location of summer meals. Ask to post announcements on their websites or in school newsletters, or provide flyers to send home in student backpacks.

2. Are there transportation issues to address?
Transportation can be a challenge during the summer months when parents are at work and unable to rely on the school bus to transport the children. Parents have to find creative ways to get their children to summer programs. In some cities, the transportation authority agrees to provide free or significantly reduced fares for children during the summer.

Tip: Contact the local transportation authority about issuing bus passes to kids who participate in park programs. Work with city council to institute a city-wide program that allows kids to use the busses for free or at a discount. In the city of Englewood, Colo., a free circulator shuttle transports riders to 19 stops, including Summer Meal Program sites. The shuttle is funded by the Regional Transportation District and the city.

3. How can quality meals be served?
To ensure the program offers healthy meals that children like and will eat, providers have found success in surveying kids and families to find out what types of food will be most popular, which ensures that the program takes cultural food preferences into consideration.

Tip: FRAC’s Standards of Excellence Guide offers information about creating meals and a healthy environment. http://frac.org/newsite/wp-content/uploads/2009/06/sfstandards.pdf.   Also, FRAC’s How-To Guide for Summer Food Sponsors on Purchasing High-Quality Summer Meals provides valuable strategies on how to find and work with food vendors. http://frac.org/wp-content/uploads/2009/09/summer_meals_vendor_guide.pdf

FRAC’s Meals Matters trainings and newsletters provide ideas and strategies on how to start up and operate successful summer meal programs. Sign up here. http://org2.salsalabs.com/o/5118/p/salsa/web/common/public/signup?signup_page_KEY=2273

Jen Adach is the Senior Manager for Media and Content Marketing at the Food Research and Action Center. Reach her at (202) 986-2200.

Serving Summer Meals: Site Or Sponsor?
When serving summer meals, park and recreation programs can choose to be a site or a sponsor. Sites work with a vendor or caterer to get the meals delivered. A site qualifies as either an open or enrolled site. An open site is located in a low-income area where 50 percent or more of the children are eligible for free or reduced-price school meals. The site is then open to all children in the community. An enrolled site only provides meals to children enrolled in the program. An enrolled site qualifies if it is located in a low-income area, or if at least half the number of children enrolled in the program are eligible for free and reduced-price school meals.

Being a sponsor requires more administrative work, but also allows more control over the program, including the nutritional quality of the food and the opportunity to help other summer sites in the community. In addition, there is direct federal reimbursement to help pay for meals. Sponsors can operate one or multiple Summer Meal Sites in any qualifying location where children congregate. If interested in applying to be a sponsor, contact the specific state agency to receive information about the training and the application. Find the state agency contact here: http://www.fns.usda.gov/sfsp/sfsp-contacts