A child’s need for a nutritious meal does not stop when school cafeterias shut down in June. Across the District this summer, free meal programs are expected to serve hundreds of thousands of meals to hungry kids, in an effort to make up for those missing school lunches.
The need is very real. During the school year, nearly 70 percent of the District’s roughly 45,000
public school stu- dents qualify for free and reduced-price meals provided by the National School
Lunch and School Breakfast programs. Getting nutritious food at home can be a struggle for low-income families. One in eight households in Washington experience food insecurity or lack of access to healthy foods, according to the nonprofit DC Hunger Solutions.
Through the D.C. Free Summer Meals Program, children and youth under 18 years of age are able to
sit and eat healthy meals at more than 200 locations through- out the city. The food service sites
include public libraries, schools, community and recreational centers and churches. At designated
“open sites” such as libraries and community centers, any child can re- ceive a meal. Additional
“closed sites,” which operate through school-based summer camps, provide meals exclusively to children participating in the camps. The meals offered vary by location but can include breakfast, lunch and dinner.
The effort has won accolades. “The D.C. Free Summer Meals Program has been ranked the best summer
food program in the country for six consecutive years for reaching the highest percentage of low-income children,” said Signe Anderson, a child nutrition policy analyst for the Food Research and Action Center, speaking at this summer’s kick off event June 12. “Last summer, it served more than one million meals to children and youth, and we expect to serve even more this year.” Despite its past success, the program has seen overall participation drop in the last several years. Officials worry it is not reaching all of the children in the District who might face food insecurity in summer. Last July, 60 percent of low-income students received summer meals – a 20 per- cent decrease from 2010. That figure is still higher than the national average, according to DC Hunger Solutions.
In an effort to boost participation, city libraries and community- based organizations have tried to increase participation by opening more sites and and advertising. For the past three summers, children and adults with special needs have been able to come to the Anacostia Library for lunch Monday through Saturday. The program runs from July 8 until August 16, and serves about 40 lunches a day. Cold lunches, requiring no preparation, are delivered daily by refrigerated trucks, said library manager Yvette Davis. She has regulars who come in almost every day, and thinks some of the children would probably not be getting a nutritious meal if not for the program.
“I do believe the program provides a well-balanced lunch to children who may not have that at
home,” Davis said. “Last week, we had some kids who really want- ed to come in. We open at 1:00
p.m., and they were waiting at the door at noon. When they came in, they raced downstairs to the
The meal on July 22 was a turkey and cheese sandwich on a whole wheat bun, a mixed fruit cup,
coleslaw and chocolate milk. All 40 meals were served within the first 22 minutes of the 90 minute
lunch period. Davis said participation in the pro- gram has increased each week, and she plans to order 50 meals, the refrigerator’s capacity, for next week.
The library did not have a refrigerator large enough to accommodate the meals until DC Hunger
Solutions paid for one. The organization worked with the D.C. Library Foundation to equip all 13
participating libraries with refrigerators, as well as training in food handling for the teenagers working in Summer Youth Employee Program who serve the food.
The summer meals program is federally-funded through the farm bill and is overseen by the U.S.
Department of Agri- culture. It is included in the same bill that provides funding for Supplemental
Nutri- tion Assistance Program, formerly called food stamps. In the District, the summer meals
program is managed by the Office of the State Superintendent of Education.