For many Arizona students, leaving school for the summer also means losing their source of healthy meals.
They don’t have to though, because this summer children up to 18 years old can receive free, nutritious breakfasts, lunches and snacks at over 1,100 Arizona schools and other community sites that participate in the Summer Food Service Program.
“Unfortunately, Arizona ranks third in child hunger rates,” said Mary Szafranski, associate superintendent of the Arizona Department of Education’s Health & Nutrition Services Division, which administers the program in Arizona. “The Summer Food Service Program meals are key to combating childhood hunger during these months.”
The U.S. Department of Agriculture started the Summer Food Service Program in 1975 to ensure that low-income children continued to receive nutritious meals when school was not in session. It has grown to provide meals that meet federal nutrition guidelines at no cost to all children 18 years old and under at approved sites in areas with significant concentrations of low-income children.
Fifty-five percent of Arizona students qualified for free- or reduced-price breakfast and lunch during the 2014-15 school year, according to Arizona Department of Education records.
Out of every 100 Arizona students who take part in the federal National School Lunch Program, less than 10 percent take part in the Summer Food Service Program, Szafranski said.
“We know they’re not eating that nutritious meal at home,” Szafranski said. “Our goal for expanding the Summer Food Service Program is to increase the number of children who participate in the program by five percent in the State of Arizona.”
To do that, the Arizona Department of Education is urging Arizona mayors to “encourage their community to participate in the summer meal program,” Szafranski said.
Earlier this week, Phoenix Mayor Greg Stanton announced the first ever Arizona Mayors’ Summer Meals Challenge during a visit to Garfield Elementary School in Phoenix Elementary School District. Stanton is encouraging all mayors in Maricopa and Pima Counties to expand children’s access to healthy meals during the summer.
“If our youth are truly our priority, we must invest in efforts that promote their health and well-being,” Stanton said. “Ensuring that children who rely on free or reduced meals during the school year continue to receive the same fuel over the summer guarantees that their minds and bodies continue to develop in ways that affect their future success.”
Thousands of children in Pima County will receive free breakfast and lunch this summer during through the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Summer Food Service Program, and Tucson Unified, Amphitheater, Marana and Sunnyside school districts will participate in the program.
“We open up our schools for free meals because for many of our students that’s their only meal. So we want to make sure they are healthy,” said Mary Veres, Sunnyside Unified School District spokeswoman in an Arizona Public Media article. “Either when they attend summer school or if they’re just in the community, we want to make sure they have a good meal program that continues on from what we give them during the school year.”
At Garfield Elementary, Stanton sat down with and talked to students eating lunch.
“I want to thank each of the students at this table who offered me your green beans this morning, but I turned it down, because you’ve got to eat those green beans. They are really healthy,” Stanton said. “Students who eat healthy do better in school, they live happier lives, they’re more likely to graduate high school and move on to college. That’s something every single student in this room is going to do.”
Arizona is in the bottom 13 of states participating in the Summer Food Service Program, Stanton said.
In Arizona, 462,634 children qualified for free- or reduced-price lunch in 2012, but just 60,303 Arizona children took part in the summer nutrition program, according to the Food Research and Action Center’s June 2013 report “Hunger Doesn’t Take a Vacation: Summer Nutrition Status Report 2013.” The Summer Food Service Program provided 1,399,153 lunches in Arizona in 2012, program sponsors in the state rose 21.3 percent and the number of sites where meals were served increased 8.3 percent.
Arizona needs to do a better job of getting nonprofit organizations, schools, libraries and community centers signed up for the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s program to provide those meals, Stanton said.
This summer the Valley of the Sun United Way will sponsor nine new sites where children can get healthy meals, said Jayson Matthews, director of ending hunger – community impact for the nonprofit organization.
“We try to find those sites that already have a good relationship with the community where parents will be sending their children to or allowing their children to go to,” Matthews said. “That’s why we love schools, because schools already are that trusted site.”
Another site that works well are community rooms in apartment buildings, Matthews said.
“Parents are working, so it has to be within walking distance,” Matthews said. “Trust is a big thing to get them out the door. Finding the very best activities will keep the kids coming back.”
Seventy percent of summer meal provider sponsors who responded to a survey said they were satisfied with the summer meal programs, noting that training or technical assistance from the state agency was a positive aspect of the experience, according to the Summer Nutrition Insights: 2014 National Summer Meals Sponsor Survey Findings.
Sixty-four percent said they planned to increase the number of children served at their sites through more advertising to families and greater enrollment in scheduled activities or programming, according to the survey.
Many students at Garfield Elementary said they take part in the summer meal program and they like all the fruits and vegetables.
“We get to eat lunch and see friends,” one boy said.
“We get to do activities when we come and hang out,” said one girl.
Matthews said they’re also looking at ways to get parents to make the Summer Meal Program part of their summer routine and plans.
“When school lets out in a couple of weeks, we want you to tell your parents that you can come back to the school during the summer and have meals and food here at the school,” said Kevin Concannon, undersecretary of the U.S. Department of Agriculture told the students at Garfield Elementary.
“It’s really important because when you come back to school at the end of the summer, your teachers can tell that you’ve been eating healthy food all summer long,” Concannon said. “You’ll grow better that way, you’ll learn better that way and it’s really helpful for all of us.”
Partners like United Way and the Dairy Council of Arizona also provide incentives to engage students in coming back each day for meals during the summer, Szafranski said.
“We want stronger children, stronger communities and stronger economy in the State of Arizona, and providing these healthy meals will go a long way toward doing so,” Stanton said.