For families that rely on school meals to provide a significant portion of their kids’ daily nutrition, the short New England summer can sometimes seem very long. For 20 years, Project Bread has been helping families fill that gap with summer programs that serve free breakfast, lunch, and dinner in communities across the state. Since 2018, communitiy-based programs supported by the statewide antihunger organization have all been identified under one name, Summer Eats.
In Boston and many other communities, Sumer Eats programs kicked off in early July. Project Bread president Erin McAleer talked about the program’s challenges including getting the word out to families, connecting food to kids in rural locations, and letting people concerned about immigration status know that no identification is needed to participate.
“I think with everything going on with ICE and immigration that’s important to know,” says McAleer. “We have in recent years been concerned about the chilling effect on some of the immigration policies on families not showing up. For us, we don’t want any child going hungry in the summer.”
Q. Let’s start with the basics of the program.
A. Summer Eats is a program to ensure that kids have access to food in summer. In Massachusetts, close to 450,000 kids rely on school meals for half their daily calories during the school year. Those are the kids we want to make sure are not going hungry during the summer. There are over 1,100 sites across the state. All the food is actually paid for by the federal government by the Summer Food Service Program. What we’re doing is working with partners, identifying areas that need sites, helping them get started and making sure that these programs are available across Massachusetts.
Q. How do you decide where to locate sites and who to serve?
A. It’s really based on poverty levels in different communities. In Boston, there’s over 200 sites. When a site exists, any child 18 or under is able to go, no identification required. They don’t even have to give their name or anything. They’re just able to come and eat a free meal. We found it’s most successful if we make sure the food is provided at places kids already are. So Boys and Girls Clubs, YMCAs, recreation departments, camps are obviously great places to house summer meal programs. But we also in the past couple of years have focused on libraries and housing authorities, parks, other locations where we know kids are during the summer.
Q. What are kids eating at Summer Eats sites?
A. It’s all different. At Project Bread we have a strong public health approach and really believe in the quality of food. So this year we’ve really focused on what we’re calling “farm to summer.” We work with sites to make sure they’re leveraging their local farms both to provide fresh produce but also to do some enrichment activities so kids learn about food. Last week, I went to sites that serve breakfast, lunch, and dinner. At breakfast they had eggs, wheat toast, and a mixed fruit, pineapples and cantaloupe. At the lunch site, they had hamburgers, a big salad, pickles with cucumbers that kids had grown in the garden. All of the salad was from their garden as well. The dinner site, that was more of a late snack. They had either peanut butter and jelly sandwiches or a chicken salad wrap and an apple. The goal is really to make sure it’s food the kids will eat. We also encourage sites to think through culturally appropriate food.
Q. What are some of the challenges communities face in reaching kids in the summer?
A. In rural Massachusetts, transportation has always been the number one issue. And so last year through our grant-making we did fund some mobile food sites. Enrichment activities are also really important. When we were in Boston last week at the kickoff, kids love getting Frisbees or doing sidewalk chalk. It doesn’t have to be anything big, but just making sure it’s fun. I do think mobile is probably the most effective strategy we’ve seen in recent years rather than trying to set up a bunch of different sites. But getting a truck is not cheap. That’s where Project Bread comes in. We give grants to support communities that are looking to address it that way.
Q. Has the need for summer meals changed over 20 years?
A. The child poverty rate in America in general has not changed in over 50 years. For us, addressing childhood hunger is critical to our work. It’s what breaks the cycle of poverty, making sure kids have access to the most basic of human needs, food. Unfortunately, the participation rate (in Summer Eats) is still low. It’s only 13 percent of kids in Massachusetts who we think could benefit from this program are accessing it. That’s what we’re focused on at Project Bread, increasing participation here in our state.
Q. How can families find out about Summer Eats locations?
A. There are a lot of different ways. Meals4kids.org is our website. You can go there and see the map of locations. At Project Bread we have a food source hotline available in multiple languages. So folks can call our hotline and ask where sites are. It’s 800-645-8333. Or you can text “food” or “comida” to 877-877 and find out where sites are.