In the past, when I thought about children facing hunger in the United States, I would think about how to solve it in terms of what schools can provide: free school lunches, free school breakfast, and free after school meals served to kids staying for homework help or other after school activities. I think this is a fairly common thought process; after all, school is where most children spend the majority of their day. If the schools have the resources, why not look to them to help feed kids who may not get enough food at home? And there is no disputing the fact that the work that schools do in this arena is incredibly important. The Food Research & Action Center has put forth studies that have proven that programs that offer free breakfast to all children improve student achievement and behavior. After all, who doesn’t have an easier time concentrating and just generally feel better on a full stomach?
But there’s a large portion of the year when kids aren’t in school. And while there are kids who relish the coming of the summer months, many children face that time with dread. Because for kids that rely on free meals provided at school, those months they spend away means little or no access to food. As Margaret Lopez, Director of Nutrition at Dallas ISD Food & Child Nutrition Services, says: “The family resources don’t increase just because school is out and kids are at home.”
That’s where the Summer Meals program comes in. Also known as the Summer Food Service Program, it’s a federally-funded USDA program that here in Texas is administered by the Texas Department of Agriculture. The TDA reimburses providers who serve healthy meals to children and teens in low-income areas at no charge. This summer, the USDA estimates that more than 200 million free meals will be served to children all over the country. To qualify for a free summer meal, you only need to be under 18 years old. There’s no need to bring identification or prove a certain level of income—if you need a meal, you get that meal.
The Dallas Coalition for Hunger Solutions’ Child Hunger Action Team is made up of some great organizations that have made it their mission to make sure kids don’t spend the summer hungry. That includes organizations who are working together to make sure all families are aware of the Summer Meals program and the sites where kids can get free healthy meals. According to Jessica Galleshaw, Director of Health Impact at United Way of Metropolitan Dallas and co-chair of the Child Hunger Action Team, a great summer meals site is “a site to which kids want to go. These sites offer healthy and delicious meals that are appealing to kids, but also integrates activities and games. For many kids there is a stigma attached to accepting help such as a free meal, so it is important for sites to overcome this by offering more than that. It is much easier for a kid to invite his friends to the park for lunch and game of basketball than to invite them to the park for a free meal. Great sites are engaging and use their face time with kids to keep them active and learning in the summer time.”
Dallas ISD alone is planning 225 summer meals locations with about half of those open to neighborhood children for meals. There are more than 70 other organizations in Dallas County that are sponsors, including other school districts. Service starts in early June and can end as late as mid-August, but the length of time, dates, and days of the week when sites are open vary by location. To find the nearest summer meals site to you, text FOODTX to 877-877, visit www.summerfood.org or call 211.
According to No Kid Hungry, families say that on average their grocery bills are about $300 higher every month that the kids are home from school. This is an expense that some families just can’t handle, and they shouldn’t have to. Join the Child Hunger Action Team in spreading the word about the Summer Meals program so we can make sure that all Dallas kids get the food they need. To learn more about how you or your organization can help, contact Loretta Landry at Loretta_Landry@baylor.edu.
This post was written and contributed to the blog by Charlotte Johnson, communications coordinator for the Dallas office of the Texas Hunger Initiative.