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Why Free Meal Programs Are Having a Tough Time Feeding Kids This Summer

For K-12 students who depend on school for some of their meals, federally sponsored summer food programs fill the gap and address the need for accessible, nutritious meals year-round.

But heat complicates food security, and for the students that use sponsored summer meal programs, a return to more rigid policies could hinder consistent access to nutritious food, key stakeholders say.

During the pandemic, federal policies allowed districts to serve grab-and-go options at summer feeding sites. When federal policy reverted back to normal rules post-pandemic, it meant that many students must now consume their meals in the heat at outdoor sites.

With kids not able to take meals to go, rates of participation in summer meal programs are likely to decline, experts said, potentially leading to children going hungry.

Food Insecurity Plagues K-12 Students Across the Nation, and Experts are Frustrated

1 in 5 children in the U.S. face hunger, according to Feeding America, a nonprofit focused on hunger relief.

Crystal FitzSimons, the child nutrition programs and policy director at the Food Research and Action Center, a nonprofit organization with a mission of helping people struggling with hunger, said during the summer months, food insecurity among families with school-aged children rises, children are more likely to gain weight, and there is a summer learning slide—outcomes that affect all children, but disproportionately affect children from low-income households.

Summer nutrition programs, however, have historically only reached a fraction of the children who are eligible for free or reduced-price school meals, FitzSimons said.

“[Summer meal programs are] either not available at no charge, or families are costed out of them, or the summer programs don’t exist at all,” FitzSimons said. “And transportation can be a barrier to accessing the meals—it’s a lot easier to provide access to meals where kids are in school already and going into the school cafeteria for lunch.”

Susan Maffe, the director of food and nutrition services for Meriden Public Schools in Connecticut, oversees nutrition programs for 13 schools and about 8,600 students in the district. She estimates that 70 to 80 percent of the population in the district uses Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program benefits, and the district supplies free meals for all students.

She said district-sponsored summer meal programs feed over 1,000 individuals daily, but participation is “never comparable” to what she sees when school is in session.

USDA expands summer meal access, but heat poses challenge for participation

The USDA offers many options for students to access meals over the summer. Schools can apply to operate sponsored meal sites or offer families the Summer Electronic Benefits Transfer Program, which provides $120 per eligible child in the summer to buy groceries for example.

Families using that program are also able to participate in other summer feeding programs, like sites where meals are provided.

Meal sites are typically operated in areas where at least half of the children are eligible for free or reduced-price meals, FitzSimons said. These meals are also available to any child aged 18 and under for no cost, and no application is needed.

But there is one catch on the site-based programs: Under what’s known as the congregate eligibility rule, children typically must consume meals on site, or the sponsor risks losing reimbursement for the meals. (Starting this summer, some rural areas are exempted.)

Maffe is operating 16 different meal sites this summer—all reimbursed by USDA funding, and therefore all requiring students to consume meals on site. This includes a food truck that provides mobile service at four different parks throughout the day.

The federal requirement, she said, affects participation rates, and she is required to monitor sites and enforce the policy.

“I feel like we fed so many more kids when grab-and-go was an option,” she said.

Sites are expected to prepare for inclement weather and other unforeseen circumstances, including extreme heat and poor air quality, but fewer children show up on days where heat, air quality, or other weather conditions inhibit them from being able to eat outside safely.

“We’re seeing extreme heat more days … where kids are not able to go outside,” FitzSimons said. “It does make it harder for the programs to reach kids.”

Maffe said one of the sites in her program experienced a 25 percent decrease in the number of people served during some of the hottest two days of a heat wave in late June, which was probably partly due to the heat, as well as a menu change, she said.

“I don’t think people want to come out because of the heat,” she said.

USDA waivers allow flexibility during extreme heat

The USDA extends waivers from these rules so school programs can send children home with meals, instead of them eating on site in the summer heat on days when there is a heat advisory or warning.

A remnant of the COVID-19 pandemic, these waivers give schools, students, and families more flexibility in areas that fall under the rule. So far, Maffe said she hasn’t heard from Connecticut officials whether she can offer a waiver.

She said she would use the waiver to improve participation rates on days with extreme heat if the state agency provides it as an option.

“My goal here is to feed kids, and being a community with such a high need, if there was a way for us to make that possible for our students and for our families, I would want to do that,” she said about the waiver.

The Connecticut department of education did not respond to EdWeek’s requests for comment before publication.

In an email to Education Week, a USDA spokesperson said agencies must ensure that consideration of extreme weather conditions and the physical safety of children is considered when approving meal sites.

Though feeding sites aren’t required to have alternate, temperature-controlled locations, they should have a contingency plan in place, the spokesperson said.

“For example, the sponsor’s contingency plan may require the site to discontinue the meal service, if safety is a concern; use a tent to provide extra shade on extremely hot days; or partner with a housing community to use an air-conditioned lobby or community room on extremely hot days,” the spokesperson said.

With her 20 years of experience in the district, Maffe believes all sites should be allowed to offer grab-and-go meals, and worries that waivers will create an administrative burden that adds to the already high lift of getting new summer meal sites approved.

With temperatures affecting students’ ability to receive meals over the summer, FitzSimons of the Food Research Advocacy Center said there is still work to be done to increase access.

“Some of the movement around non-congregate [meals] has been helpful to expand our access to the program,” she said. “I think there’s always more we could be doing to make sure that kids have access to summer meals.”

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