Ask an Arizona child what summertime is about and most will tell you freedom and fun. What many won’t say is that it’s also a time of hunger and uncertainty about when they’ll eat next, but it doesn’t have to be.
Kids can receive healthy breakfasts, lunches and snacks at over 1,100 Arizona schools and other community sites that participate in the federal summer nutrition programs — the Summer Food Service Program and the National School Lunch Program. Parents can find an approved SFSP site nearby on www.azsummerfood.gov or by calling the Arizona Department of Education at 602-542-8700.
“Unfortunately, Arizona ranks third in child hunger rates,” said Mary Szafranski, associate superintendent of the Arizona Department of Education’s Health and 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.
“These summer programs are excellent and provide food service to many students and programs within our community,” said Fernando Parra, assistant superintendent of the Nogales Unified School District.
In 2013, Arizona served more than 4.1 million summer meals to children, and “our goal is to increase the summer meals served to Arizona children by three percent,” Szafranski said.
In 2012, participation in the Summer Food Service Program rose in 26 states and the District of Columbia. Participation increased most in Indiana by 28.2 percent, followed by Oklahoma at 26.1 percent, Vermont at 23.7 percent, and Arizona at 22.7 percent, according to the Food Research and Action Center’s June 2013 report “Hunger Doesn’t Take a Vacation: Summer Nutrition Status Report 2013.”
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 report.
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.
“We serve 3.2 million meals during the school year and are hoping to provide over 200,000 meals this summer at 20 sites with the help of our food truck and different marketing strategies to inform our community where and when meals will be served,” said Joseph Ortiz, communications director for Roosevelt School District. “We will also offer supper meals at some locations for families looking for a good wholesome meal.”
This summer, Roosevelt’s new food truck will let the district provide hot meals for children in South Phoenix without continually going from the sites to the commissary to replenish food, Ortiz said.
“The children we feed are always grateful for the meals we provide,” Ortiz said. “Our district staff is on board to help us in any way they can. We often get calls about opportunities to feed the community. We are very aware the families in South Phoenix often rely on the meals we provide.”
Edwardo Banuelos, director of dining services for Nogales Unified School District, said they provide hot “meals that students like and enjoy” like pizza, corn dogs and chicken nuggets at schools, parks and recreational facilities as part of their summer meals program.
“We also try to increase participation with our company’s mascot Chef Manny Panda as we grill outside at the sites,” Banuelos said.
The meals also play an important role in drawing children into educational, enrichment and recreational activities that keep them learning, engaged, active, and safe during summer break, according to the Hunger Doesn’t Take a Vacation report.
“Our summer program is at the city park under a ramada by the swimming pool,” said Kay Hauser, food service director for St. Johns Unified School District. “We time our breakfast and lunch to meet the swim lessons times, the mother/tot swim time and the open swim times.”
The summer food service program in St. Johns, which has 828 students enrolled in the district, averages 75 breakfasts and 150 lunches per day five days a week from June 2 thru July 31, Hauser said.
“St. Johns is a small community, and the park is within walking distance of every home in town,” Hauser said. “Kids will walk to the pool; therefore, we are accessible to all the youth who need or want to participate.”
About half the children who participate have financial and nutritional need, Hauser said.
“Approximately half our youth eat summer lunch, because moms are excited not to have to prepare lunch. The moms have a social relaxed time at the park as their children eat and play,” Hauser said.
It takes more than a meal to get a child out of the house, so partners work with libraries, fire and police departments, zoos and other organizations to provide engaging activities between meals, Szafranski said.
“The Summer Food Service Program is reassuring for the parents, knowing that their children are in a safe environment and doing something constructive and not going hungry,” Szafranski said.
In 2012, the federal Summer Food Service Program provided meals for more than 2.28 million children nationwide at 39,000 sites across the country, with the $398 million Congress appropriated for the program, according to the USDA’s Summer Food Service program website.
But that means the program reaches just one in seven of the low-income children nationally who participate in the free- and reduced-price lunch program during the school year, according to the Hunger Doesn’t Take a Vacation report.
“Recession-related funding cuts to the summer schools and summer programs that provide the platform for serving summer meals in turn limited their capacity to feed low-income children,” the report said.
This summer, the USDA and its national, state and local partners in the Summer Food Service Program plan to raise the number of meals served by 5 million by reaching out to communities and eliminating barriers to participation, according to the report.
The Arizona Department of Education’s partnerships with schools, local food banks, Valley of the Sun United Way, school districts, WhyHunger, SNAP and WIC offices have provided excellent outreach and marketing to Arizona communities, Szafranski said.
“We do offer summer meals at two of our elementary schools and they are open to all children up to the age of 18,” said Sarah Pacheco, public information officer for Sierra Vista Unified School District. “We serve hot breakfast and lunch. Our monthly average is about 1,600 kids.”
The district’s enrollment is about 5,670 students.
The summer school location usually has the highest numbers, Pacheco said.
“Our food service staff appreciates the fact that they are making a difference in the child’s life by providing what may be their only meals of the day,” Pacheco said.
The district also reminds parents about local service organizations where they can find assistance over the summer, Pacheco said.
“There is St. Vincent de Paul that is open during the summer months and provides non-perishable food to those in need,” Pacheco said. “We also have a Salvation Army which offers assistance.”
In Flagstaff, four schools – Killip, Kinsey and Thomas elementary schools and Coconino High School – provide summer meals, said Karin Eberhard, Flagstaff Unified School District community relations coordinator.
“FUSD’s program serves approximately 760 breakfasts and 1,100 lunches per day,” Eberhard said. “Our community seems to appreciate the availability of food items and the diversity of locations.”
The Yavapai Food Council is working on getting approval for “the summer meals program and we’re really focusing on fresh produce and education in the schools,” said Amy Aossey, executive director of the Yavapai Food Council based in Sedona.
“We’re working on getting summer meals to everywhere in Verde Valley that doesn’t have service right now, as well as filling some holes in the Prescott area,” Aossey said.