Agencies strive to feed needy kids over summer months
LOWELL — For the millions of kids nationwide eligible for free or reduced-price school lunches, a summer out of school can mean fewer guaranteed meals.
Federal, state and local agencies partner to feed those children breakfast and lunch through the Summer Food Service Program, an initiative organizers say reaches far fewer students than their efforts during the academic year.
Nationally, around 3 million children get meals through the summer programs, about one-seventh of the 21 million who receive free or reduced-price school lunches, said James Arena-DeRosa, northeast regional administrator for the United States Department of Agriculture’s Food and Nutrition Service.
“Of course, we’re worried because, especially when kids are growing, the summers are a really important time for them,” Arena-DeRosa said. “They need good nutrition all year long.”
In Massachusetts, where the USDA partners with community organizations and the state Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, almost 2.8 million meals were served across more than 800 locations. That reaches about one-fifth of the eligible student population.
One part of the strategy is looking for where kids already gather in the summer, and bringing food to those sites, Arena-DeRosa said.
“Are kids at the recreation facilities? Are they going to the Boys and Girls Clubs? Maybe it’s going to the housing authorities,” he said.
Cities like Lowell, where more than half of students are eligible for free or reduced-price lunch, offer open sites, where meals are served for free, to anyone under 18, on a drop-in basis.
Site sponsors in Lowell include the Lowell Public Schools, the Boys & Girls Club of Lowell, the Parks and Recreation Department, the Lowell Housing Authority and the Merrimack Valley Food Bank.
The Merrimack Valley Food Bank began its partnership with the USDA in 2005, getting reimbursed for meals provided to kids through a program that first launched in 1993.
In each of the past two years, the food bank provided between 9,000 and 10,000 lunches, Executive Director Amy Pessia said.
“Even if it’s for one week or a couple days a week, it’s something that will help them maintain good health, and when they return to school at the end of August, they’ll be ready to learn, and they won’t have to play catch-up,” Pessia said.
The meals served in the summer tend to be more basic than the typical school lunch, Arena-DeRosa said. Usually, they involve a sandwich paired with two fruits or vegetables — turkey on whole-grain bread, with carrot sticks, an apple and low-fat milk, for example.
“It’s summertime, so whoever is overseeing it has to be mindful of temperatures and food safety and things like that, so they’re usually a pretty simple meal,” Arena-DeRosa said. “But we still want them to be nutritious, so the kids are not just eating food, but eating good food.”
The Lowell Housing Authority’s Mercier Center and George Flanagan Development offer meals and activities to their residents through the Summer Food Service Program, with info sessions encouraging healthy nutrition.
Pessia said some sites also feature gardens, and an upcoming donation of garden tools will allow kids to learn about sustainability.
“Children who don’t already know should know where their food comes from and how to be more self-sufficient,” Pessia said. “We all know that healthy eating can alleviate a host of health problems and potentially avoid problems that are associated with poor nutrition, including diabetes, hypertension and obesity.”