On Thursday, February 1, 2024, the Food Research and Action Center (FRAC) hosted a webinar entitled Taking a Fresh Look at Summer Meals. The organization emphasized the overall importance of these nutritional programs for children, which support youth physical and mental well-being and development. Students have the opportunity to obtain nutritious meals during the summer, which aids in fighting food insecurity and providing children opportunities for socialization and site enrichment activities. Many schools and other summer programs also benefit through the reimbursement for the meals, which provides financial assistance to keep regular operations ongoing. As of July 2022, sites across the country distributed lunches to a total of almost three million children on an average day with overall child participation in the summer lunch programs minorly increasing from rates before the pandemic.

Two main Summer Nutrition Program options in the United States were reviewed: Summer Food Service Program (SFSP) and Seamless Summer Option (SSO). Both programs are required to follow established guidelines regarding meal options, child eligibility, and meal patterns. Program coordinators can serve up to two meals per day (breakfast, lunch, or snack) that adhere to specific USDA meal patterns involving fruits and vegetables, proteins, and other nutritional components. The eligibility of children to receive the meals may be determined through assessment of the child’s location and income eligibility. SFSP is more popular due to the program having higher per-meal reimbursement, a more simplified meal pattern in comparison to the SSO, and other factors.

A new non-congregate option to distribute summer meals to children in rural settings is also now available for the 2024 year. The new option was specifically created so that children located in rural areas with significantly less access to congregate meal programs (locations identified by state agencies) can have the same opportunity to obtain nutritious meals. There are several other eligibility criteria that such new programs must meet before being implemented, now also including that the site location is required to be in a rural area per definition by the USDA.

Several organizers of nutritional programs from across the United States shared experiences with program implementation. Assessing community needs and collaborating with vendors, volunteers, nonprofit organizations, and other partners is imperative to create a flexible meal or nutritional program that supports the health and well-being of all children. A commonly referenced benefit for different initiatives was mobile operations or transportation assistance. Mobile operations have allowed some programs to assist more children and families in food desert, or more rural areas. However, many organizations also expressed the lack of necessary funding to address this challenge in provision of meals to families where transportation is a significant barrier. Increasing funding to address these challenges, as well as other positive changes at the policy level, are needed for meal programs to continue to fight food insecurity and child hunger in the United States.

By Emmalyn Walenda, Policy Intern