Helping by Participating

If I take my child to a summer meal site, will we be taking food away from the kids who need the meals?

I get this question often around this time of year as parents look for ways to adapt their food budgets to account for children being out of school this summer. And the question is likely even more prescient now as families navigate new realities created by an economic downturn and mass unemployment.

The short answer to this question is “No.”

The slightly longer and often surprising answer is “No. And in fact, taking your child to participate in the program is actually the easiest and most sustainable way to ensure that ‘the kids who need the meals’ can continue to receive them.”

The Summer Food Service Program is a publicly funded initiative of the United States Department of Agriculture and is managed by state agencies, in our case the Texas Department of Agriculture. And most importantly, with regards to the question at hand, it is a reimbursable nutrition program, which means that school districts and other non-profits who operate the program receive anywhere from $.97 to around $4.00 for every meal they serve, depending on what meal is being served and other qualifying factors. This reimbursement funds all aspects of the program such as food, labor, transportation, and paperwork. As you might imagine, providers of these meals often operate on razor thin margins to keep the program going. Economies of scale mean that low participation makes operating the program more difficult, while high participation gives school districts and other organizations that operate the program more room to breathe. Meal sites that dip below a certain amount of kids participating each day are often at risk of closing down as the summer progresses, which leads to families who benefit the most from these programs struggling to stretch their rapidly diminishing food budgets.

But let’s step aside from the mechanics of the program and talk, instead, about some assumptions in the original question that we would be well served to clear up. The first is that we are operating out of scarcity, rather than abundance. This scarcity mentality is widespread, and understandable during the difficult times we find ourselves in. But it is a false assumption. There is more than enough food in our country to feed every person living here three meals a day, even in harsh economic times. On top of that, our economy operates under the principle that resources EXPAND, not diminish, as they are moved around. Every dollar that flows into the local economy to help feed someone has a rate of return that puts even the most successful investment portfolio to shame. Food service workers, delivery drivers, farmers, and untold others receive a boost from these programs. The rising tide lifts a lot of ships.

The other assumption that should be recalibrated is the idea that there are kids in our community that need the food, and there are others that don’t. This creates an unnecessary stigma around public child nutrition programs that sends subtle, psychological messages to kids who participate in summer meals. If we could work as a community to eliminate this stigma by treating these programs the way we treat public education, roads, sanitation services, etc., like they are services that we all contribute to and all take part in, then unnecessary barriers to nutrition like shame and stigma can be eliminated.

So if you have kids and are able to take them to one of the many lunch sites around town this summer, you not only will be helping to stretch your budget, you’ll ensure that a program for all kids will remain viable for as long as possible. An interactive map to locate the nearest meal site can be found here: https://squaremeals.org/Programs/SummerFeedingPrograms/SummerFeedingInteractiveMap.aspx .

Help us keep these sites stustainable for all kids throughout the summer!

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