Children from low-income families in St. Louis and across Missouri and the nation are missing free nutritious meals in the summer, and all that is needed to feed them are community organizations willing to sponsor or host sites for the Summer Food Service Program.
The program, administered by the Food and Nutrition Service at the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), has money to provide summer meals for children and youth eligible for free and reduced-price lunches at public schools during the school year.
About 400,000 children and youth in Missouri eat free and reduced-price meals every school day, according to the USDA, but the summer meals program reaches only about 27,000 of them.
On a recent visit to St. Louis, Audrey Rowe, administrator for the Food and Nutrition Service at the USDA, called for community institutions to sponsor or host summer meal sites. Churches in particular should be more involved, she said.
“The faith-based community has not been fully engaged in the Summer Food Service Program because they just don’t know about it,” Rowe said. “And those who do know about the program don’t know how to engage with it.”
The funds are federal, but the Missouri Department of Health and Senior Services administers the program. The direct state contact is Ann McCormack, chief of the Bureau of Community Food and Nutrition Assistance. Call 888-435-1464 or email firstname.lastname@example.org for more information about sponsoring or hosting a summer meal site.
There is some financial risk involved in hosting a summer meal site, Rowe said. Hosts are only reimbursed for meals they actually provide, so accurately estimating the number of children who will show up is critical.
“If you plan for more meals than you actually distribute, that’s a loss,” Rowe said.
Rowe also said the amount of paperwork to sponsor or host a site can be forbidding to community organizations, and her office is making an effort to reduce the amount of paperwork.
But program sponsors are responsible for the paperwork, she said. The region has enough program sponsors to accommodate new hosts of meal sites. Rowe encourages community groups willing to host a summer meal site to contact the state, which can match them with sponsors.
Rising temperatures also pose a problem, since an outdoor site may be too hot for children and youth to eat their meals on-site. The USDA is approving more “carry-out” summer sites to address this problem, she said, “so children don’t have to eat in the heat or sit and drink milk in the heat.”
However, she said, the program is still constrained by its enabling legislation from 1968 that stipulates summer meals should be provided in a group context that also includes an academic or physical “enrichment activity.”
Rowe said the simplest solution is to host a summer meal site in tandem with an existing program or activity that brings children and youth together, such as a summer camp.
Eligible summer meal hosts include faith-based institutions, libraries, boys and girls clubs, community action agencies, recreation centers, some hospitals and government agencies. Rowe encouraged any interested groups to contact the state to see if they are eligible.
“We encourage people to become a summer meals site,” Rowe said. “There is no reason for food insecurity to go up in the summer when we have funds to pay to feed these children.”
For more information on hosting a summer meals site, contact Ann McCormack at 888-435-1464 or email@example.com. For more information on the program, visit www.fns.usda.gov/sfsp. To find an existing site for summer meals, call 1-866-348-6479.