By India Mackinson
Every day in Charlotte, an air-conditioned school activity bus full of free lunches turns into a church parking lot. Within minutes, 60 children cross the street from a mobile home park with their friends and neighbors to receive a meal.
“It was just miraculous to see,” said Tamara Baker, communications and project director for No Kid Hungry North Carolina, a nonprofit dedicated to helping children access nutrition programs. “The families just came up in droves. They spread out their own blankets underneath trees in the parking lot, and the kids immediately grabbed their food and went into the bus to eat it or sat down on a picnic blanket with their parents.
“It was a beautiful day.”
The church parking lot is one of more than 2,500 meal sites across North Carolina serving free meals to children as part of the national federally funded Summer Food Service Program. Last summer, the program distributed over 4,470,000 free meals in the state, funded with nearly $12.5 million from the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
But that only scratches the surface of what the program can do to address hunger in North Carolina.
To find a site, visit www.fns.usda.gov/summerfoodrocks and enter a location.
Or call 1.866.348.6479 (English) or 1.877.842.6273 (Spanish).
The 50-year-old program has long-standing bipartisan support, yet participation remains low nationwide. Only 12 percent of the nearly one million eligible children in North Carolina, ranked 24th in participation nationally, use the program, according to the USDA.
The money–up to millions more a day– is there, but local hurdles and federal regulatory barriers keep communities from accessing it.
Reaching hundreds of thousands of children left out of the program could boost their physical, mental and academic well-being year-round as well as bring in spending to local economies.
“Logistics is the biggest barrier,” said Maureen Berner, from the School of Government at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. “Not due to need, not due to willingness of people to meet the need.”
More than a meal
The program is an extension of the National School Lunch Program, continuing free meals from cafeterias during the school year to community spaces during the 10-week summer break.
State agencies administer the program and recruit sponsors, such as school districts and private organizations, to prepare and distribute food to meal sites in areas where 50 percent of children qualify for free and reduced-priced lunch. Any child under 18 years old can receive a meal, no registration or identification required. Sponsors are reimbursed for each meal served with federal dollars.
Without the summer meals program, students from low-income families lose access to often their only source of fresh, nutritious food until school starts again.
“We hear a ton of stories of children who come into meal sites, and it’s the only time they ever see fresh fruit or fresh vegetables all summer long,” said McCamy Holloway, a summer nutrition consultant at the N.C. Department of Public Instruction. “It’s a costly food item in a lot of areas, especially because some of these sites are in food deserts.”
Good, ongoing nutrition sets the foundation for a healthy diet that helps prevent chronic illnesses down the road, such as heart disease, diabetes, some types of cancer, and osteoporosis, according to the Food Research & Action Center.
Nutrition and enrichment activities provided at meal sites also support mental wellness and brain development, which translates into success in the classroom, said Holloway.
While most students slide back in academic achievement over the summer, low-income students fall back two months farther than their more affluent peers, according to a No Kid Hungry report. In the long run, these students are less likely to graduate high school and attend college.
Entangling local logistics
Even with thousands of meal sites scattered throughout North Carolina, geographic diversity and large rural expanses make getting meals to kids difficult. Transportation is the program’s biggest barrier.
“Especially down east and especially the more west you go, we have a lot of extreme poverty,” said Baker. “You know you might be a mile away from a site in the mountains, but it’s gonna take you a long time to wind through those mountain roads.”[sponsor]
It’s hard to find accessible meal site locations throughout North Carolina’s 80 rural counties, said Holloway. While the USDA reimburses sponsors up to a certain amount for each meal, it’s not always enough to cover the economic strain that comes with serving a rural area.
“We have school systems that are very willing to deliver food to sites, but it’s costly to go and make,” said Holloway. “People can do a two- or three-hour loop every day delivering meals, and that’s a lot of gas money, and you’re paying for that worker, too.”
Even in cities, something as simple as a fence or a busy street between a child’s home and a meal site can be insurmountable. Holloway also said parents may not be comfortable allowing their children to go to meal sites alone while they are at work.
Often, families simply don’t know.
“The majority of the people I meet have no idea that this program existed even though it’s been around for 50 years,” said Holloway.
DPI, which administers the program on a state level, began partnering with No Kid Hungry in 2011 to increase outreach to eligible families, potential sponsors and volunteers.
At a local level, engaging the community can be tricky, said Carolyn Brandt, program director of Food for the Summer, an organization that runs 15 meal sites in Chapel Hill and Carrboro. She’s working to promote more buy-in to reach those that historically have been left out.
“Chapel Hill and Carrboro is usually looked at as a well-off community, so many aren’t aware that there are food insecure families in our community,” said Jessica Soldavini, a graduate research assistant with No Kid Hungry, which is a part of a UNC-Chapel Hill initiative. “This helps open [volunteers’] eyes to that and really makes them more aware of certain issues in their community.”
The participation rate in the Chapel Hill-Carrboro Food for the Summer program is 30 to 35 percent of eligible children, well above both the North Carolina and national average of 12 percent.
“Some of the biggest barriers to the program are at the policy level, so that’s something we can’t really change,” said Brandt. “It’s about figuring out what we can change and what we can capitalize on to keep growing that percentage.”
To control fraud and abuse in the summer nutrition program, federal regulations require children to come to meal sites and eat the entire meal without leaving. Any flexibility in innovation ends with driving buses out to meal sites, like the Charlotte program.
“While that [regulation] sounds great if you have an established place where the kids can get there and that works for them, the reality is that many established places are just that blanket in a parking lot,” said Baker. “What do you do when it rains, and what do you do when it’s really, really hot?”
This rule prevents any kind of door-to-door delivery or drop off, such as a food truck or Meals-on-Wheels model, that could solve the program’s transportation problem and help more families participate, said Holloway.
Because of the logistical challenges, the reimbursement rate per meal is higher than the National School Lunch Program, but more per meal could make the summer program more affordable for smaller sponsors, said Holloway.
The stigma around taking help also keeps some families, especially teenagers, from the meal sites.
“I’ve heard stories of families walking by a site with several children and saying ‘No, that’s not for us,’” said Holloway.
Vidya Canales, who brings her 2-year-old daughter to a meal site in Chapel Hill everyday, agreed.
“Don’t be ashamed. That’s why a program like this exists. Everybody comes here. If you want to save on your food budget or if you just want your kids to socialize, this is great,” said Canales. “It encourages teenagers to come out as well. It’s not just for babies.”
Innovation moving forward
After decades of change in schools, neighborhoods, technology and learning, it’s time to reflect the new state of summer in the nutrition program, said Berner.
“It would be exciting to go back to the drawing board, in a way, to say ‘How can we best feed hungry kids in the summer in today’s world?’” said Berner.
She said there are several new approaches that state agencies and sponsors can take, including:
- Partnering with organizations that already work with families, such as clinics and hospitals. Atrium Health in Charlotte recently became a summer meal site, the first hospital in the state to do so.
- Enrolling more children in camps to streamline meal distribution with the added benefit of consistent enrichment and socialization.
- Expanding mobile meal site models, such as the one in the Rowan-Salisbury Schools summer nutrition program.
- Highlighting the available funding and partnering with local restaurants and businesses to provide healthy meals.
Feeding all the eligible children in the state, even for one day, could purchase several million dollars of North Carolina products, such as sweet potatoes, blueberries, meat and bread.
“That’s money that would go directly into these local economies,” said Berner. “There would be a multiplier effect from that to all the businesses. It’s a win-win-win situation for the kids, for the businesses and for the farmers if there’s a way for the local government to coordinate this.”
While Baker isn’t worried about funding for the summer nutrition program going anywhere, she said child nutrition–a critical component to long-term health and success–is undervalued.
“If Congress does start thinking ‘We need to cut this, we need to cut that’, they don’t necessarily make the connection to what they’re doing to the well-being of the whole child and their potential for the future,” said Baker. “That’s part of what we try to do–to try and help people understand that incredible connection.”