Modernizing the Summer Meals Program
November 17, 2014
Jillien Meier, Senior Manager, No Kid Hungry Center for Best Practices
Summer is the hungriest time of year for many children from low-income families. During the school year, these kids count on the nutrition they get from school meals. When school is out, low-income families struggle to make up those missed meals. The federal Summer Food Service Program (SFSP) helps children from low-income families get the healthy food they need during the summer months. The program requires that children come to a central location and eat their meals in a supervised setting (referred to as the congregate feeding requirement). In places the program works well, kids eat healthy meals in safe, interactive environments.
Unfortunately, with this one size fits all program model, most kids from low-income families do not get a summer meal because they face real barriers to accessing meals. Children across the country do not have the opportunity to benefit from these programs because sites are located too far away in rural communities; it’s too hot to go outside; extreme violence threatens their neighborhood; or they fall within the 30 percent of low-income children who live in communities that do not qualify for open summer meals sites.
To address the chronic challenges of ensuring children have access to food during the summer months, Congress appropriated $85 million to United States Department of Agriculture’s Food and Nutrition Service (FNS) to carry out demonstration projects to develop and test innovative and targeted methods of providing access to food for children.
In 2011, FNS launched the Summer Meal Delivery Demonstration to test non-congregate feeding models to connect eligible children in rural areas with nutritious food in the summer months. The Summer Meal Delivery Demonstration provided sponsors in Delaware, Massachusetts, and New York with funding to deliver meals to children living in rural areas where low-population density and transportation challenges resulted in few, if any, summer meals sites. The goal of the demonstration was to provide meals to children who cannot access traditional summer meals sites due to barriers like lack of public transportation or a lack of open summer meals sites.
Eligible sponsors could deliver up to two meals per child per day, mirroring what summer meals sites are able to provide. Children who were eligible to receive free and reduced price lunches at school during the preceding year were eligible to participate in the demonstration. USDA required sponsors to submit detailed reports on content of the meals, frequency of delivery, household-level information for each child, and delivery routes. This oversight addressed concerns related to food safety handling and ensured eligible children were receiving meals directly from sponsors.
A rigorous, third-party evaluation of the demonstration project in summer 2012 found it provided meals to approximately 1,055 low-income children living in hard to reach rural areas. The project provided approximately 131,406 meals to children in these areas who would otherwise not have been able to receive summer meals at traditional congregate sites. Across the three states, participating communities saw an increase of over 100 percent in meals delivered from 2011 to 2012.
The success of these demonstration projects underscores the high level of need for healthy food outside of the traditional summer meals model. Children living in rural communities fundamentally lack access to congregate meal sites- typically lacking transportation to meal sites that are often located miles from their homes or simply living in communities that lack open meal sites altogether.
There is no question that in the summer months, children benefit greatly from the traditional site-based summer meals program. Where it works well, congregate feeding is an excellent way to ensure that children are getting the healthy meals they need in a safe, supervised location that provides opportunities for social interaction and activities. It’s vital to support these types of programs. However, we know that the current summer meals program is only reaching 15 percent of eligible children. By providing flexibility on congregate feeding, Congress can ensure states are able to be more responsive and efficient in operating summer meals programs in ways that best fit the communities they serve.
As Congress considers Child Nutrition Reauthorization in 2015, we have the opportunity to improve the summer meals program so it meets the needs of children from low-income families no matter where they live.
 U.S. Department of Agriculture Food and Nutrition Service. Report on the Summer Food for Children Demonstration Projects for Fiscal year 2013, A Report to Congress. December 2013