Turnout Low for Kids’ Summer Food Program

Last year, only 32.6 percent of city kids who participated in free or reduced-price lunch plans during the academic school year regularly ate free meals from the Summer Food Service Program. (Photo by U.S. Department of Agriculture, Creative Commons license)

Last year, only 32.6 percent of city kids who participated in free or reduced-price lunch plans during the academic school year regularly ate free meals from the Summer Food Service Program. This year it continues to be a struggle to attract children to meal sites. (Photo by U.S. Department of Agriculture, Creative Commons license)

Every year the NYC Department of Education runs the city’s portion of the national Summer Food Service Program (SFSP), which provides free meals to kids 18 and under. But as is consistently the case, the number of kids who actually turn out for the meals falls behind the presumed number of those in need of one, reports Brooklyn Bureau’s Leah Robinson.

Last year, for example, only 32.6 percent of young people in the city who receive free and reduced-price lunch during the school year – which amounts to 177,688 students – received daily SFSP meals. Robinson explores the factors that contribute to this discrepancy.

Food organizations have done their share of outreach efforts in advertising the food program, including in places like food banks and housing projects.

Organizations like the Food Bank for New York City, New York City Coalition for Hunger, New York City No Kid Hungry and the USDA do their very best to promote the meals program. Online maps, hotlines and flyers at emergency food centers and housing projects advertise free food locations, while the websites of various anti-hunger organizations, like No Kid Hungry, break it down into bullet points for curious families—noting that the meals follow USDA nutritional guidelines, are served in safe community centers where kids can socialize and attend other programming and don’t require the hassle of filling out an application.

The numerical gap may be attributed, among other reasons, to children being dispersed during the summer when school is not in session.

“In theory, the summer meals program is a very excellent one. Those kids need the nutrition,” explains Agnes Molnar, a co-founder of Community Food Advocates. “But the fact is that when they aren’t in school they don’t go to a congregated site and that makes everything much more complicated.”

The head of a hunger advocacy organization adds other possible hindrances, including the fact that food program locations do not allow for eating together as a family.

Joel Berg, executive director of the New York City Coalition Against Hunger, blames low participation on everything from the heat and a lack of air-conditioned meal sites to rules that prevent caregivers and kids from eating together. “Ten percent of kids in New York City are raised by their grandparents, yet those over 18 years of age can’t eat at SFSP sites and kids can’t eat at senior center meal sites,” Berg notes

Berg also believes the city could do more to promote the meals – from funding recreational centers, which are ideal sites for food distribution to following in the footsteps of Baltimore leaders: The Charm City’s mayor, Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, has gone door-to-door highlighting the SFSP program.

Another factor in the divergent numbers is also a matter of numbers: Teens can feel out of place at locations serving the food given age discrepancies.

Some see stigma depressing turnout, especially among older kids. “When older students walk into an elementary school they are not always made to feel welcome. Security guards aren’t always aware that meals are open to those under 19 and question them. It’s also not really ‘cool’ for a teen to be hanging out in an elementary cafeteria eating alongside 8-year-olds,” explains Triada Stampas, senior director of government relations for the Food Bank for New York City. Stampas explains that pools are the best place for meal sites as they are less age-restrictive. There are no public pools in Remsen Village, Rugby, Farragut, Flatbush or Northeast Flatbush.

Things might be looking up when it comes to participation, at least in the Bronx and Queens. The DOE is engaging in another method for food distribution. Rather than getting kids to come to a site, meal trucks are going after the kids.

(…) The city Department of Education has started dispatching summer meals trucks in the Bronx and Queens to hand out food to those on the move. The four trucks have served 111,000 meals so far, with a mobile unit on Main Street, in Flushing, Queens serving an average 1,200 per day.

“It’s a fabulous idea,” says an enthusiastic Molnar. “Now we can really get to the kids where they are.”

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