During the school year, Stacey Vehlewald’s kids are able to grab bagels in the cafeteria before class, and chow down on chicken nuggets at lunchtime. When summer break arrives, those free meals from the school cafeteria aren’t available.
Even with trips to the food pantry and shopping discounts, last summer Vehlewald's grocery bill went up at least $300 per month.
“It’s hard to fix that gap,” Vehlewald said. “That’s three meals extra for three children, but your food stamps don’t go up for that extra time.”
During the school year, low-income families are able to receive lunch — and sometimes breakfast and dinner, too — at reduced rates or at no cost through the federally-funded meals program. When those kids are home for summer break, making sure they get good nutrition is more difficult. Schools and nonprofit groups run summer nutrition programs, but their reach often is more limited than school-year lunch programs.
This summer, Vehlewald’s children will have access to free snacks and dinner five days a week in her apartment complex. That’s compared to a half-hour's drive away in DeSoto, where Vehlewald said the closest meal program was last year; too far to do every day.
“If I struggle with money for food, then I struggle for gas money to get to DeSoto and back daily,” said.
Putting a dent in the need
The Child Core Foundation is running the program serving Vehlewald’s children in Festus and eight other meal sites in Jefferson County. Programs Director Tanjela Jones said that’s up from six locations last year when they served 5,000 meals through the summer.
This year the goal is 26,000 meals, but Jones said that’s still not enough.
“[That] don’t even put a dent in Jefferson County,” Jones said. “There’s a big need in Jefferson County to feed our children in the summer months.”
Adding more sites and meals requires a lot of logistics, including finding refrigerator space for more food; training additional site supervisors and bringing on more volunteers. Jones said her organization decided to expand efforts in Jefferson County after having conversations with people last year.
“This area is so underserved and no one was really doing anything for the children here,” she said.
The numbers back Jones up. There are about 13,400 kids in Jefferson County who qualify for free and reduced lunch at school, according to the non-profit No Kid Hungry Missouri. Three percent of them received free meals last summer.
“The child nutrition programs are authorized at the federal level and they’re continuously underutilized,” said Jon Barry, No Kid Hungry Missouri’s program director.
He said about 11 percent of Missouri children in low-income homes get free meals over the summer just as they do during the school year. That’s on par with the national average. While some Missouri counties are doing better than average, six counties provide no meal services at all.
Barry said the key is creating the infrastructure to get meals to kids.
“The challenge is bringing the right people together to meet the need,” he said, "and that hasn’t traditionally been done and that’s what we’re trying to do.”
There are a few models that nonprofits and schools use to get food into children’s hands through the summer. Using community spaces is one, as the Child Core Foundation is doing in Jefferson County. Some libraries, including the St. Louis County Library system, serve meals along with summer reading programs. Then there are the school districts that continue meals for kids in summer school.
At Hanrahan and Woodland schools in the Jennings School District, children line up next to a brightly-painted delivery van each day to grab lunch. Operation Food Search, a St. Louis regional food bank, will deliver food to this and about 60 other locations during the summer.
About a thousand kids in Jennings will receive meals during summer school, according to Kimberly Wooden, an administrator in the north St. Louis County school district. She said during the school year, the lunch program is a good motivator to attend.
“I would say summer is the same,” she said. “It’s the same motivation, because they’re hungry.”
The kids find seats on playground equipment and pick at their lunches of crackers, cheese, meat and raisins, washing it down with milk.
When summer school concludes at the end of June, so too will these free meals, leaving parents to find a different program site, hope they can get more at area food pantries or spend more on groceries.
“Why does it have to be such a struggle to do something that seems like there shouldn’t be any complication feeding kids, there should be no argument,” Barry said.
Missouri is in a pilot program to increase Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program benefits over the summer, giving families in the food program more money when kids are out of school. Until that’s expanded, meals will continue to be served in community centers, libraries and during summer school.
For more information and to find the closest summer meal program —
In the St. Louis area:
- Text “FOOD” to 877-877
- Visit wefeedkidsSTL.org
- Or call Operation Food Search at (314) 726-5355 x124
- The Department of Health and Senior Services has a map of locations at ogi.oa.mo.gov/DHSS/summerFood
In Illinois and Metro East:
- Visit SummerMealsIllinois.org
- Call the Illinois Hunger Coalition at (800) 359-2163
- The U.S. Department of Agriculture maintains a map of sites nationwide at fns.usda.gov/summerfoodrocks
Follow Ryan on Twitter: @rpatrickdelaney