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More than 21 million children rely on free and reduced school meals during the academic year. Only one out of six of these kids participate in the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) Summer Food Service Program (SFSP). SFSP seeks to address food insecurity among children and youth during the summer months when they are out of school. The following is an overview of SFSP, obstacles, examples of community partnerships, and actions by state legislatures.
SFSP provides free and nutritious meals to low-income children 18 and younger when they are out of school during the summer months. USDA’s Food and Nutrition Service (FNS) agency administers SFSP at the federal level. Different agencies in the states administer the program, such as departments of health and human services, education or agriculture. For FY2012, Congress appropriated $398 million for SFSP. In 2013, only 3.4 million of those 21 million children receiving free or reduced priced meals during the school year actually participated in SFSP. Now in 2014, FNS is in its second year of providing technical assistance to states and local partners nationwide to expand access to summer meals.
Sponsors and Sites
At the local level, SFSP works through sponsors and sites. Sponsors are organizations responsible, financially and administratively, for running the program at sites. Agencies determine sponsorship through an application process that varies by state (state agency contacts). Sponsors can include schools, local governments (such as parks and recreation departments), nonprofits (such as the Boys and Girls Club and Feeding America food banks), colleges, and libraries. Sponsors receive payments based on the number of meals served multiplied by the appropriate combined administrative and operating rates for reimbursement. Sites are the physical location, where meals are served. Sponsors may operate, upon state approval, up to 200 sites.
Transportation: Because the program requires children and youth to consume meals onsite (unless permitted otherwise by the state agency), those with limited transportation, especially in rural areas, are at a disadvantage to participate in SFSP. The Second Harvest Food Bank of Northeast Tennessee is bridging this gap by using buses as sites that deliver meals to children in rural areas.
Lack of Sponsors/Sites: SFSP works at the community level. Without sponsors to run the program and sites to host the meals, children will not have access to food during the summer months.
Awareness: A 2013 national survey by Share Our Strength and APCO Insights found that only 40 percent of low-income families report being aware of locations for free summer meals and only 17 percent participated. Community outreach is critical to increasing participation in SFSP.
The Texas legislature’s H.B. 749, enacted in 2013, aims to increase participation in SFSP, especially in rural areas, by developing a five-year plan in collaboration with Baylor University’s Texas Hunger Initiative. By Jan. 1, 2015, the Texas Department of Agriculture is to submit a report on implementation to the governor, lieutenant governor, speaker of the house and the appropriate standing committees.
Nebraska’s Legislative Bill 1090, enacted in 2012, sought to strengthen participation in SFSP by empowering the Nebraska State Department of Education to award grants up to $15,000 on a competitive basis to SFSP sponsors to cover the initiation or expansion of the program, conduct outreach, acquire equipment, and train SFSP staff. The department of education was required to collect data on sites, sponsors and children served and report to the legislature.
The Arkansas No Kid Hungry Campaign worked collaboratively with the USDA, state agencies, and nonprofit organizations to increase participation of children and youth in SFSP resulting in an additional 1.6 million meals served in 2013. The partnership is composed of The Arkansas Hunger Relief Alliance, the Office of Governor Mike Beebe, and Share Our Strength in collaboration with state agencies. Part of the success comes from targeted SFSP sites and sponsor recruitment and the subsequent work to retain these. Additionally, the campaign provides small grants to aid sponsors in start up and staff costs.
Libraries as Meal Sites. The City of Oakland, Calif., Alameda County Community Food Bank, and the Oakland Public Library collaborated to turn libraries into SFSP sites during the summer months. The result was not only an increase in SFSP participation, but an increased interest in library and summer learning.
The San Antonio Food Bank of Southwest Texas, a member of Feeding America’s network, expanded its Summer Feeding program to provide meals to children in rural areas. Food banks often have the capacity and community network needed to serve as SFSP sponsors.
What Legislators Can Do
- Promote the national texting and hotline system: call 1-866-3HUNGRY or text FOOD to 877-877 to find the nearest Summer Meals site.
- Raise awareness: promote SFSP in district e-newsletters, flyers in district offices, social media, and legislator websites. Reach out to local schools, libraries, and other community organizations.
- Visit a Summer Meals site as part of a media kick-off event and to learn how SFSP affects your constituents.
- Work with schools and other community organizations to promote and recruit SFSP sponsors or sites.
- Work with your state agency and governor’s office to promote outreach in your district and learn more about SFSP.
Tadeo Melean is a Bill Emerson National Hunger Fellow with the NCSL Hunger Partnership.