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Kansas Struggling To Provide Summer Meals To Students In Need

DC Central Kitchen, flickr Creative Commons

It’s estimated that almost half of the students enrolled in Kansas public schools receive free or reduced-priced meals. But of those 185,784 children, only about 7 percent take advantage of meals offered in the summer. That ranks Kansas 48th in the country. KMUW’s Sean Sandefur reports . . .

Breakfast and Lunch in the Summer?

Credit Sean Sandefur
Gina Lee, Haysville West Middle School

With the early morning sun barely visible, a group of students at Haysville West Middle School socialize and get a bite to eat. They wear big, winter coats and lug around colorful backpacks. Gina Lee is the director of food services for the district.

"This is where we serve breakfast and lunch," Lee says, as she gives a tour of the cafeteria. 

The kids in line for breakfast have arrived early, so they can grab a pastry and orange juice before class.

Lee says her district follows nutritional guidelines from the National School Lunch Program to make sure students have the energy to focus on their schoolwork. Children whose parents are low-income can get their breakfast or lunch for free. For some, it’s the only way to get a meal during the day.

“It's now taking two incomes to live, and having parents at home isn't an option for some students." Lee says. "So yes, sometimes this is the only meal they receive. And we're fortunate that we can provide that for them.”

Lee says when school is in session, feeding hungry kids is easier, as they’re already in the building five days a week. But when classes let out for the summer, reaching hungry students can be a challenge.

The Haysville School District’s solution is to provide breakfast and lunch at three strategic sites in the summer. All meals are reimbursed by the federal government, through the Summer Food Service Program. The program can feed upwards of 1,000 kids each day, but usually the number is around 400, according to Lee.

“It’s a program that's based on serving the needs of the children in the community," she says. "We're very fortunate that we have an administrative staff in the Haysville School District that's very supportive of this program--it's important and valuable to them.”

The school district has found enough money in their budget to both staff these summer sites, and provide a bus for kids who live too far to walk or ride their bikes. Data shows that the Haysville School District is seeing a much higher rate of participation than the rest of Kansas.

Credit Sean Sandefur
Rebekah Gaston, Kansas Appleseed Center

Rebekah Gaston is the staff attorney for the Child Hunger Initiative at Kansas Appleseed.

She recently spoke at a conference centered on summer meal programs at the Kansas Health Foundation.

Gaston has been studying the percentage of students who are eligible for free and reduced-priced meals, but aren’t getting help with meals in the summer. Kansas hasn’t fared well.

“For the summer of 2012, we ranked 50th," she says. "That's out of 51, because Washington, DC is included in the list. In 2013, (Kansas was ranked) 48th--a small increase, but still far from where we need to be.”

Gaston says what’s lacking in many areas of Kansas is precisely what the Haysville School District has done well: finding locations to house summer meal programs and finding ways to get kids to them. But she says it’s also about awareness.

“If we have 8,000 sites in Kansas, but kids don't know where the sites are and when they can get the meals, it doesn't do them any good," she says. "We want to make sure the kids and their parents know when the meals are being served, where they're being served, and that they are at no cost to the kids.”

Click the graphic below to find a summer food program near you 

A Nationwide Problem

Summer meal programs must follow the same nutritional guidelines as those served during the school year. That's important, according to Audrey Rowe, Administrator for Food and Nutrition Services at the U.S. Department of Agriculture. She says the problem isn’t always that students are going without food, but that they might be going without nutritious food.

Credit Sean Sandefur
Audrey Rowe, U.S. Dept. of Agriculture

“I hear about everything from mayonnaise sandwiches to chips and sodas." she says. "That's what they can get access to, that's what the family has available to them."

"If children are sitting at home eating junk food, watching TV or playing XBOX games, they return to school with deficiencies in their learning and they’re going to have to catch up.”

These problems hit rural communities especially hard, according to Rowe. There are over 30 counties in Kansas where summer meal programs could exist, but don’t. 

“Rural child poverty has actually increased beyond urban child poverty. Poverty in rural communities is growing and many people who live in rural communities don't consider themselves to be poor.”

That leads to families not signing up.

Rowe says that addressing this problem will take a commitment from the very communities who need help. She spends a lot time on the road, educating local officials on how to implement summer meal programs, and how to make them work.

“Grassroots involvement is what makes this program successful. Such as reaching out to sponsors, corporations and businesses to help with funding, whether it's transportation or just coolers."

"In New Mexico, they have mobile sites, so they need coolers in which to move food so it stays safe. Those are the kinds of innovations and best practices that we're seeing crop up around the country.”

Information for starting a Summer Food Service Program near you

Rowe challenges communities to think outside of the box, such as outfitting school buses so that meal programs can be mobile, using existing transportation services to get kids to and from sites and offering activities such as sports in order to transform the programs into summer camps.

Gina Lee, director of food services for the Haysville School District, says that although Haysville is doing well, her program can improve along with the state's.

“We just hope that more students join us this summer" she says. "Kansas has to step it up a bit."

"But that's OK, we're up to the challenge.”

Lee says awareness for this year’s summer meal program has already started. Flyers are going home to parents and posters are going up at school.

To contact KMUW News or to send in a news tip, reach us at news@kmuw.org.
Follow Sean Sandefur on Twitter, @SeanSandefur