The Summer Food Service Program (SFSP) is a federal initiative of the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) that provides funding for states to feed their children when schools are closed for the summer.
The funds are available to every community in the United States. But of the 20.1 million children who received subsidized lunches during the 2014–2015 school year, only 3.2 million received consistent summer meals, according to the Food Research Action Center. Local organizations, governments, schools, camps, churches, and leaders are working to make sure these federal funds are implemented and accessible in their communities.“When children lose access to school meals, their families’ grocery bills skyrocket and families are forced to make tough choices between food and other basic necessities,” says Diana Aviv, CEO of the national nonprofit Feeding America. The benefits of summer feeding programs extend beyond fulfilling basic needs; they also provide safe places for youth to connect to educational programs and physical activities, create employment opportunities for community members, and allow families to extend their food budgets during the summer months.
But there are many roadblocks to establishing successful summer programs. According to Feeding America, nine million low-income children reside in areas that are ineligible to host SFSP meal sites. Unreliable or nonexistent transportation can also be an impediment to accessing meal sites, especially in rural communities.
Feeding America is an organization working to connect low-income children with the benefits of the SFSP, address barriers to implementation of feeding programs, raise awareness of the importance of the SFSP, and advocate for policies that improve the accessibility of summer meals. The organization operates a network of food banks which act as local sponsors and sites for the SFSP, serving consistent and wholesome food to children. Federal funding for summer meals is administered at the state level, but implementation happens at local levels. Community organizations sponsor the summer feeding programs, and institutions—such as libraries, hospitals, parks, and schools—host the programs in safe environments.
In Vermont, a Feeding America food bank operates the VeggieVanGo, a mobile market that provides fresh produce to families and children. Through the food banks and its Kids Café and BackPack programs, Feeding America provided nearly 9.5 million meals to children in 2015.
These types of initiatives are taking place all across the world. Here are 19 initiatives working to fuel growing minds and bodies during summer vacation:
The Akshaya Patra Foundation is based in Bengaluru, India, and helps to feed school children across 10 Indian states through the Mid-Day Meal Program. The foundation’s Anganwadi feeding program extends to more than 150,000 young children and 6,000 mothers throughout the year. This feeding program provides meals to the children and mothers at community health centers, called Anganwadis.
The California Summer Meal Coalition (CSMC) is a statewide initiative of the Institute for Local Government that works to connect children to the USDA’s summer nutrition programs. Based in Sacramento, the CSMC network provides resources—such as webinars and events—that highlight examples of successful summer meal programs in the country, as well as practical advice to help local policymakers and leaders improve children’s access to meals.
The Children’s Lunchbox is an initiative of the Bean’s Cafe, a nonprofit organization in Anchorage, Alaska. The Lunchbox was founded in 2004 and partners with community programs to provide more than 300,000 meals to the area’s hungry children. The initiative offers meals during the summer, weekends, and before and after school days.
Cops ‘N’ Kids is a program based in Southbridge, Massachusetts, that works to develop responsible youth while reducing juvenile delinquencies. During the summer months, the program serves free breakfast and lunch to more than 80 kids per day. Cops ‘N’ Kids connects law enforcement from the Southbridge Police Department to youth through daily and weekly activities, such as CPR training, nutrition education, healthy cooking lessons, and gardening.
In Costa Rica, the Dirección Nacional de CEN-CINAI is a government-funded network of nutrition centers for young children that has been in operation for more than 60 years. The program serves and delivers daily meals to children and pregnant and nursing mothers, and also promotes healthy lifestyles through nutrition education of parents and caregivers.
In Dallas, Equal Heart works with libraries to serve summer meals to children. The nonprofit organization helps to provide wholesome meals that come with kid-friendly activities, such as book clubs, art classes, computer classes, and crochet groups. In 2015, some branches served up to 100 children per day. Equal Heart also runs a Direct-to-Door program in Texas and Colorado, aiming to deliver meals straight to residences.
The Family League of Baltimore provides free breakfast, lunch, and dinner at summer meal sites throughout the city of Baltimore. The organization also partners with YouthWorks to give adolescents the opportunity to develop job and leadership experience by working with Baltimore’s summer meal sites.
Based in Oklahoma City, Feed the Children’s Summer Food and Education Program operates 34 sites in Oklahoma to provide consistent meals to children. The sites are located in libraries, camps, churches, and schools, where young students are physically and mentally stimulated during the summer months. The program also distributes books, school supplies, backpacks, and sports supplies.
Feeding America is a national nonprofit that works at local levels to connect children to healthy summer meals in safe locations. The organization works all over the United States to increase participation in summer feeding programs for low-income children. This is done by raising awareness of feeding programs and sites and making use of local resources to distribute meals. In San Diego County, Feeding America San Diego sponsors 10 SFSP sites and works with community organizations and schools to host outdoor events. Feeding America also runs a Kids Café program, which works with local sites across the country to provide meals, education, and physical activities in supervised environments.
Feeding Our Future, an initiative of the nonprofit organization Second Harvest, works in Toronto, Canada, to ensure free meals for children in summer camps. The program partners with the Sodexo Foundation to prepare and deliver healthful lunches, and it has delivered 100,000 meals since 2005.
Based in Ontario, the Food 4 Kids Summer Feeding Program (SFP) is Canada’s first regional program that works to alleviate food insecurity when children are on summer break. The program partners with local food banks to provide 500 children with healthy food packages, such as packages containing ingredients for vegetarian chili. SFP ensures that at least 50 percent of the whole foods provided are sourced from Ontario.
Healthy Returns is a D.C. Central Kitchen initiative that partners with 32 agencies to offer after-school and summer meals to children in the Washington, D.C., metropolitan area. Through these partnerships, the initiative strives to not only provide consistent meals but to empower children through counseling, nutrition education, tutoring, outreach, liberal arts, and job preparedness. For instance, Healthy Returns provides meals and nutrition education to children involved with Jubilee Housing, an organization which provides youth programming to the Adams Morgan neighborhood in Washington, D.C.
Based in Illinois, the Hillsboro Area Hospital operates a summer program that improves access to its free meals with a hired school bus. Participants in the program can arrive at the hospital in the morning to socialize and engage in physical activities and library events. The program also gives older children the opportunity to develop leadership skills, such as helping with morning check-ins and assisting with gym days. According to Hillsboro Area Hospital’s president, Rex Brown, the program aims for a sustainable and replicable model so that other hospitals will be inspired to adopt similar initiatives.
The Lunchbox is a mobile café that provides free summer meals to children in Northeast Vermont, where rural families struggle to secure reliable transportation to food. The Lunchbox program is an initiative of the Green Mountain Farm-to-School nonprofit organization. The café’s meal ingredients are sourced from local farms, and the program also works with retail outlets to improve access to local foods for recipients of the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP).
Based in Luton, England, MakeLunch is a network of churches and community groups in England, Scotland, and Wales working to offer free and healthy meals to low-income children during holiday breaks. Through this network of Lunch Kitchens, MakeLunch has provided more than 36,000 meals to children since its establishment in 2011. Many of the Lunch Kitchens also involve kids in cooking, crafts, and activities.
The National Charity Partnership’s holiday lunch clubs, found throughout the U.K., provide free meals to parents, caregivers, and children when schools are on breaks. The partnership’s clubs supply games for kids and teach parents and caregivers how to create meals with wholesome, affordable ingredients.
Share Our Strength’s No Kid Hungry campaign uses a U.S. network of community members, organizations, governments, and businesses to remove obstacles that keep children from receiving food assistance in the U.S. The campaign supports local initiatives that are providing summer meals to children. For example, the campaign works with the Medical University of South Carolina hospital in Charleston to provide free food to children. No Kid Hungry has a mobile service which directs people, via text message, to summer meal sites in their community. The campaign also runs a Cooking Matters program, which teaches low-income families how to cook healthy, affordable meals.
The United Nations’ World Food Programme (WFP) runs a School Meals scheme in countries throughout the world. School Meals also provides food assistance after school hours and during holiday breaks. For example, in Côte d’Ivoire, the WFP distributes take-home rations to girls who have an attendance rate of 80 percent and provides nutritional supplements to 102,000 children in the Zanzan district.
Tina Ward and Lea Anne Werder of the Brunswick County School System operate the Yummy Bus in rural Brunswick County, North Carolina. Yummy is housed in a retired school bus and travels throughout the 1,000-square-mile county to provide children in rural communities with free meals and books.
Danielle Nierenberg is President, Food Tank, foodtank.com