This past summer, more than 3.8 million children per day were provided with free food in America. That’s thanks to the Summer Food Service Program (SFSP) run by the Food and Nutrition Service, an agency of the US Department of Agriculture (USDA).

Throughout the country, at sites that varied from schools to churches and included libraries, summer camps, parks and even mobile trucks, any child aged 18 or under could receive one or two nutritionally balanced meals per day.

According to the Share Our Strength, a national non-profit organisation working to end child hunger in the US, programmes such as this are vital because 20% of American children struggle with hunger.

The SFSP was set up as a pilot programme in 1968, permanently established in 1975, and has grown exponentially since then. While anyone can set up a meal service site, they are often found in schools and non-profit organisations where there’s a kitchen; some, however, are just feeding locations, receiving their food from sponsor sites such as schools. The limitation is that sites can only operate in areas where at least half of the children are from low-income families that are eligible for free and reduced-price school meals during the school year.

Every year the USDA takes a new approach to grow the SFSP; for 2016 there was a push to expand it at health clinics, while this year it was library sites.

Despite its success more can be done, says Katie Wilson, deputy under-secretary, food, nutrition, and consumer services with the USDA. “We serve about 33 million kids a day for school lunch during the school year, but we’re only at 3.8 million for summer foodservice, so we know we’re very low,” she explains.

Each site is reimbursed by the USDA for the meals it serves. For rural sponsors and those doing the actual preparation of food that rate is $2.18 (£1.65) for breakfast and $3.83 (£2.90) for lunch. Others, such as those who simply distribute the food, receive $2.14 for breakfast and $3.77 for lunch. However, the meals have to meet certain standards. Lunch, for example, must contain one milk component, two fruits or vegetables, one grain component, and one meat or meat-alternative serving.

Jefferson County Public Schools (JCPS) in Louisville, Kentucky, served 104,689 breakfasts and 178,121 lunches throughout the summer of 2016, and although the numbers aren’t in yet for this year, it has probably exceeded that.

Although its programme has been running for more than 20 years, according to JCPS director of foodservice Julia Bauscher it really took off in 2015 when the district launched mobile feeding routes, serving the children using a donated bus that travelled to ‘bus-stop cafes’.

“It was in decent shape and we procured the things that were needed to make it a mobile feeding site,” says Bauscher.

By the summer of 2016, the district had another bus and added another route and many more feeding sites. This year, in addition, two refrigerated vans trailed the two buses in order to meet demand. There were just over 20 bus-stop cafes in the district.

JCPS operates at local and private schools, churches, boys’ and girls’ clubs, and, of course, through the bus-stop cafes. “We’ll go anywhere we can draw kids to,” says Bauscher.

Serving children through the summer is very important to Bauscher. “In my 23-year career in school foodservice it’s been one of the most gratifying projects I’ve worked on,” she says. “In our district, about two-thirds of kids are eligible for free and reduced-price meals, so there’s a lot of food insecurity and they really need access to food in the summer.”

Bauscher, however, wants to do more, as during the school year she feeds around 67,000 pupils while in the summer it’s closer to 2,500. A key concern, therefore, is getting the word out.

The foodservice department does that through a local parade, via advertisements in a local free publication, and schools send flyers home with children. It also uses social media, especially Twitter, and local media typically publicise it.

The bus-stop cafes have also done a huge amount to spread the word, says Bauscher: “We got so much attention that first summer, and it’s amazing to see children already in line, to see mothers pushing their toddlers and strollers. In fact, we had to change the food because we had so many really little children coming.”

It’s not always easy to run the programme, Bauscher admits: “It can be very frustrating. But we don’t do summer because it’s the easy thing to do, but because it’s the right thing to do, and the appreciation we get from the community still makes me cry.”

JCPS dishes up breakfast between 8am and 9am usually, then lunch between 11am and noon. “In the summer that might be a little early, especially for older children, but the nice thing about the mobile routes is we start at 10.45am and don’t make our last stop until almost 3.30pm, so it gives us a long serving time, which means it’s more likely more kids will be out and about,” Bauscher explains.

All food is prepared in JCPS’s central kitchen then shipped out. During the school year, the district has partnerships with local farmers and producers and hopes to have those expanded to the summer programme for 2018. Part of the problem is the produce that comes from these farms is typically processed into meals for the coming school year, so not a lot is left over.

The meals meet the requirements for reimbursement through the SFSP. Most of the food is cold, although a few sites do serve a hot main course, such as schools with kitchens, Bauscher says.

This summer, Minneapolis Public Schools served around 300,000 meals through its summer programme, including breakfast, lunch, snacks and dinner.

The district works with summer schools because they have direct access to the kids, and with community locations such as activity groups and libraries.

For 2017, food was served at 107 sites, with 16 being summer schools run by the district, which served hot meals, and six others serving cold food from a food truck.

There’s usually a designated area for the children to eat in at these sites, to prevent parents abusing this privilege, says the district’s food service director, Bertrand Weber, although children can take one fruit or vegetable home with them.

Minneapolis took a fresh approach to getting its message out this year, creating truck wraps for its delivery vehicles that contained basic information and contact information. It also released an app to help parents find meal sites, with details about which meals they serve and at what times.

The district also partners with food banks that provide information, and its website contains a map for consumers to find the nearest meal site to their home. “This year we also partnered with the local transportation system and they had maps showing the closest route to each site,” adds extended school meals coordinator Sara Eugene.

The programme is not without its challenges. “We struggle with menu variety with the cold food, so we started snack packs and salads because sometimes cold food has a negative connotation,” Eugene explains. “Sometimes people think because the food is cold it’s not good quality.”

Operationally, the challenge is compliance, says Weber. “As a district, we are audited every year to make sure we are compliant so there’s no fraud involved in what we do. But we do struggle sometimes with community sites not understanding the importance of complying, such as telling people it’s okay to take food home, or not making sure the children have enough food for it to qualify as a reimbursable meal.”

But staffing the programme typically isn’t a challenge, says Weber. Most catering employees are not year-round workers, and when the district starts the summer lunch programme each year all employees can apply for positions with it.

All those involved in the programme say that hungry children are not happy children, while as Bauscher points out, “hunger doesn’t take a break during the summer”.

“My motto,” she concludes, “is feed them where they work and play.”

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