Thousands of local students qualify for free or reduced meals during the school year. When summer vacation starts, however, families often struggle to afford three meals a day. That’s why the both Saint Paul Public Schools and Minneapolis Public Schools are once again offering free summer meals as part of the USDA Summer Food Service Program (SFSP).
The SFSP is the largest federal resource providing meals for low-income students during the summer months. During the school year, meals are available through the National School Lunch and School Breakfast Programs, but those programs end when school ends for the summer. The hope is that the SFSP helps to fill that gap and keep kids from going hungry during the summer months.
“The majority of our students are eligible for free or reduced price meals,” said Nicole Barron, accounting and business systems manager of Minneapolis Public Schools. “In the summer, we need to make sure that there is some way for these students to get the nutrition that they need so that they come back to school healthy and ready to learn in the fall. Also, it relieves some of the stress for parents who cannot afford to feed their children.”
In Saint Paul, the SFSP began Monday, June 9 and will end Friday, August 22. Meals are available at over 90 sites throughout the city, including schools, community sites and recreation centers.
In Minneapolis, the SFSP began Monday, June 16 and will end Friday, August 15. Meals are available at 100 sites in the city, a decrease from last year.
“We currently have fewer sites than last year,” said Barron. “Most of the decrease in the number of locations was due to more strategic locations of programs. I think that we are realizing that it is more efficient to serve the same amount of children in fewer buildings. Even with fewer sites, I believe that we will serve at least as many meals as we served last year.”
In both cities, the meals may include breakfast, lunch, supper and afternoon snacks, depending on the hours of operation of the distribution centers. Previously, most sites only offered breakfast and lunch, but in recent years, more sites are offering later afternoon snacks and supper. In St. Paul, the later snacks and meals are driven by student activities and need.
“Programs can only offer two meals, per USDA regulations,” said Jean Ronnei, director of nutrition and commercial services for St. Paul Public Schools. “But students can go to more than one program, which helps get them more meals during the day. We’re not telling families to run around the city to multiple sites. But kids may be in summer school during the day and participate in park and recreation activities in the afternoons and evenings.”
Minneapolis Public Schools noticed the same need and began offering later snacks and meals at some sites.
“We added the afternoon snack and dinners last year based on feedback from park sites that kids were hungry in the late afternoons and evenings and asking for food. The park sites requested dinners because they thought it would alleviate some of the behavior issues that they were experiencing in the evenings,” said Barron.
According to Ronnei, the City of St. Paul is offering numerous programs and is partnering with St. Paul Public Schools to provide appropriate educational opportunities and activities for students that help control behavioral issues and keep kids safe.
“We noticed that there were lots of activities during the supper hours at our outreach sites,” said Dawn George, nutrition services coordinator for Summer Food Programming with St. Paul Public Schools and Recreation Centers. “The economy is definitely driving this. It’s an easier way for families to feed more kids if they have multiple sites to take them to.”
While the SFSP in both Minneapolis and St. Paul provides nutritious meals for students, their parents are often left to fend for themselves. USDA regulations prevent schools and community sites using these dollars from feeding people over the age of 18 who are not directly involved in the program as an enrollee or staff member. Both cities are acutely aware of this issue.
“It’s never easy,” said Ronnei, of the issue of turning parents away when they attend meals with their students. “Dawn [George] and our Parks and Rec sites are trained to handle these issues with sensitivity.”
“Since it is a federally funded child nutrition program, parents cannot eat any of the children’s meals,” Barron said. “This is actually a common issue in Minneapolis and other summer sites; it is very difficult to have to tell a parent not to eat the child’s food.”
This year, for the first time, Minneapolis is providing meals to parents at three sites in the city, chosen because of their proximity to economically challenged areas. (Pilot sites are indicated in bold on the site list.)
“Because we know that many of our parents are also hungry, we are piloting a program at three of our sites this year to allow parents to eat with the child,” Barron explained. “We are receiving corporate money to pay for the parents’ meals. The sites with this pilot are Lucy Laney, Nellie Stone Johnson, and Cityview. Children ages 1-18 and their parents will be able to eat breakfast and lunch together at these sites beginning June 16.”
The number of students attending the Summer Food Service program has decreased in Minnesota in the past few years. In 2004, the average daily attendance was 28,242. By 2007, that number had dropped to 25,560. (The average daily attendance is calculated based on totals in July of each year, the peak month of national program activity.) The amount of meals served has decreased as well, from 1.2 million in 2004 to 1.15 in 2007.
However, given the current economic situation, Barron expects there will be more meals served this year in Minneapolis, even though sites have decreased. St. Paul Schools expect to see the same increase despite a decrease in district-sponsored sites.
“St. Paul Public Schools has fewer sites open this year because of construction,” said Ronnei. “However, our outreach sites are increasing and we expect to serve more meals at these sites than in previous years, especially because of the addition of snacks and supper at many sites. We’ve got better coverage across the city due to Parks and Recreation looking at where the needs are.”
“We’ve got new sites in areas of St. Paul that will serve kids who’ve never had this available to them before,” said George. “That’s a big deal.”
SFSP was first created as part of a larger pilot program in 1968. It became a separate program in 1975. By 1980, 1.9 million children were participating. Participation dropped to 1.5 million in 1985 and grew to 1.7 million again by 1990. Almost 2 million children participated at almost 31,000 sites in the summer of 2005.
Nationally, there were 31,000 sites in 2007 that served an average of 1.9 million students daily or 117.8 million meals. The 2007 program cost $284.7 million for the federal government.
Katie Anderson is a freelance writer in Minneapolis.