Across the country, millions of children rely on free or reduced-priced school lunches to provide a nutritious meal every day, sometimes the only one they will receive.
So what happens when the final bell rings and summer begins?
According to U.S. Department of Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, 21 million students receive free or reduced lunch during the school year but only 2.5 million take advantage of programs in the summer.
In March, Vilsack called for an increase in USDA Summer Food Service Program (SFSP) sites across the country, naming Rhode Island as one of the five target states.
The Westbay Community Action Marketplace will partner with the Rhode Island Community Food Bank to step up to the challenge this month, by providing vacation meal boxes to registered families with listings of the nearest SFSP sites.
With support from an Our Family Foundation Grant from Stop & Shop, the Food Bank was tasked with helping to find new partners for SFSP and promote the overall program.
According to Kristen Allen, the program coordinator at the Food Bank, the vacation boxes at Westbay Marketplace will serve as “an outreach to let people know about sites.”
She explained that vacation boxes would provide a weekend’s worth of portion-controlled, kid-friendly food including mac-and-cheese, cups of cereal, granola bars and shelf-stable milk. Families that receive a box will also receive a flyer with information about the closest SFSP sites.
The program began on Tuesday, and in just three hours, Carol Sweeney, a Marketplace employee, said she had already handed out seven boxes.
“They are happy to get it,” said Sweeney.
She explained that when someone comes in to get food from the Marketplace, she asks if the individual has any children. If they say yes and are registered as a family of two or more, Sweeney said she offers them one of the vacation boxes.
“We are giving out the boxes in communities where we have been successful finding new partners,” said Allen.
Joshua Michael Corrente, Marketplace manager, explained that any family with children registered to receive food at the Marketplace would receive a vacation box.
He added that the Marketplace usually serves 1,000 families every month but currently has close to 1,300 registered for 2013. He has no record of how many of those families include children.
“Three years ago, if we did 800 families a month total, that was busy,” said Corrente.
For now, the 250 vacation boxes are only going to be handed out in June. Allen explained vacation boxes are being handed out in June because it will be during the gap between when school ends and SFSP sites start in July.
“If they expand it, we will participate,” said Corrente.
Vilsack hopes that SFSP will be expanding, serving an additional 5 million students this summer.
SFSP is a federally funded program established to provide nutritious meals for children in low-income communities during the summer, according to Steve Carey, nutrition program specialist for the Rhode Island Department of Education (RIDE). RIDE is responsible for distributing USDA funds to registered sites.
Carey explained that to qualify as an “open site,” meaning any individual 18 or younger can go and pick up a meal at a certain time, the surrounding community, determined by the closest school, must have at least 50 percent of students enrolled in free or reduced-price lunch programs.
According to Carey, Warwick has never sponsored a SFSP site.
In the 2013 Rhode Island Kids Count Factbook, Warwick has a total of 3,266 students listed as “low-income,” meaning they qualify for free and reduced-price lunches. However, that is only 35 percent of the student population.
Carey explained that although Warwick is the second largest city in the state, only Oakland Beach Elementary School is considered “area-eligible,” yet it does not have a sponsor to create a site.
Since Warwick does not have sites, the Marketplace will provide information about an open site at the Thundermist Health Center in West Warwick. The site is being sponsored by the West Warwick School Department, and Allen said the site would provide a late meal around 4 p.m.
Carey said the town of West Warwick is considered to be one of the six core communities in Rhode Island with a number of SFSP sites.
Allen believes that sites have reduced because recreation and park departments often sponsor them, but staffing and usage in those areas has gone down.
“More kids are enrolled in summer programs or have family members watching them,” said Allen.
According to Food Research and Action Center’s (FRAC) “Hunger Doesn’t Take A Vacation: Summer Nutrition Status Report 2013,” Rhode Island served 11.6 children through SFSP per 100 served during the school year for the month of July 2012, ranking the state 16th in the country.
For comparison, Washington, D.C. ranked first, serving 56.4 per 100, while Hawaii came in 51st, serving only 2.1 per 100.
Vilsack explained that funding for SFSP comes through federal nutrition programs, and grants can cover anything from supplies and equipment to transportation and food. Congress appropriated $434,724,000 for SFSP in FY2013 for this upcoming summer.
“I don’t think I have fear of folks in Congress saying we need to cut these nutrition programs,” Vilsack said. “There is a significant need here. I am not overly concerned about financial consequences. I am concerned about human consequences.”
Vilsack added that SFSP helps the local economy because states are reimbursed for resources used.
According to FRAC’s study, “for each day a state failed to feed a low-income child a lunch during the summer of 2012, the state lost at least $3.325 in federal SFSP funding.” A chart in the report shows that had Rhode Island met the national goal of serving 40 children in the summer per 100 served during the school year in July 2012, the state would have received $941,648 in additional federal reimbursement.