Needed: A More Efficient, Effective Summer Meal Program

March 20, 2015

By Bernadette Di Rita, Advocacy Manager, Share Our Strength

Summer is one of the hungriest times of the year when kids who rely on free or reduced-price meals during the school year find themselves without consistent access to meals. This year, Congress has the opportunity to change the one-size-fits-all regulations governing the Summer Food Service Program (SFSP).  These regulations constrain the program reaching only one out of every seven kids who receive a free or reduced-price lunch during the school year.  Child Nutrition Reauthorization (CNR) provides an opportunity for Congress to improve the way we feed the nation’s children during summer months.

Courtesy: Share Our Strength

Courtesy: Share Our Strength

Under a current regulation known as “congregate feeding requirement,” kids must travel to sites at set times for their meals and eat their meals on the premises.  Extreme weather, neighborhood safety, and lack of transportation can keep kids away from these locations.  In addition, organizations are only eligible to serve meals in predominantly low-income communities, where at least 50% of kids qualify for free or reduced-price lunch. As many as 30 percent of kids live outside of these eligible areas.  In communities where the congregate feeding method works, it should remain the ideal method to bring critical nutrition and socialization to children. More options, however, are needed for states to ensure kids receive the nutrition they need during the summer.

SFSP needs more flexibility to allow for more efficient and effective programming through options such as:

  • Keeping successful congregate sites open and supported;
  • Allowing kids to pick up meals from sites to eat at home;
  • Enabling communities to implement home delivery programs that bring food to kids where they live;
  • Providing low-income families with a grocery credit during the summer months, empowering parents to directly purchase the food their kids need.

Across the country, we’ve seen states asking for exactly these options. Through waiver requests to USDA, every year summer meal sponsors and state agencies request additional flexibility to meet the varying needs of their diverse communities.  These waiver requests demonstrate the unique challenges that impact the summer meals program across the country.

For example, Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of Chicago petitioned for and was awarded a congregate feeding waiver due to gang activity and high rates of retaliatory violence in Chicago. According to Catholic Charities, “children were afraid to sit and eat… because of gang warfare and shootings in the area.” The waiver allowed kids to get the food they needed safely; similar requests in other communities, however, were denied.

In fact, a large majority of requested waivers were denied.  In 2010, Congress authorized the USDA’s Food and Nutrition Service to address summer meals

Courtesy: Share Our Strength

Courtesy: Share Our Strength

challenges by carrying out demonstration projects that tested innovative and more efficient methods of feeding children. Most waiver requests states have submitted have come under these demonstration projects, which provides an extremely narrow scope for USDA to determine whether or not they can be granted.

Baltimore, MD and the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE) were denied their requests for waivers. (Baltimore’s application responded to neighborhood safety concerns and was denied due to a lack of USDA legal authority to grant the waiver.  DESE’s request was denied because the demonstration program’s appropriated funding was exhausted, meaning USDA could not extend the program and it was unable to serve 200 rural children living in Cape Cod.)

As Congress considers updates to the summer meals policies through CNR in 2015, it has the opportunity to improve the summer meals program, providing states and communities with flexible options to reach more children.  As a result, states would be able to feed more of their hungry kids, no matter where they live.