Five-year-old Dariel Valentin stretched his body over a large rectangular mat labeled “Twisted Food,” his hands sprawled out on drawings of purple fruits – including grapes, cabbage, and eggplant – with his feet gliding past red circles directly below containing depictions of cherries, beans, and tomatoes.
As Valentin bounded off the nutrition-themed game, representing an educational version of Twister, he gestured animatedly to lettuce and read the accompanying description aloud.
“Lettuce has a lot of water and is refreshing to eat during summer,” said Valentin, as he slowly sounded out each syllable. “It has a lot of vitamin C.”
At the Anna M. Cole Community Center in Jamaica Plain on Wednesday afternoon, Valentin was surrounded by dozens of young children, some who tried their luck spinning a nutrition wheel — before claiming a water bottle or insulated lunchbox as a prize.
The playful and welcoming environment at the third annual Boston Summer Eats kickoff nevertheless carried serious overtones.
The event highlighted the importance of destigmatizing food insecurity and of encouraging students 18 and under to take advantage of the summer program, which offers free meals at more than 100 sites across Boston while school is not in session.
Project Bread, an antihunger organization and a Summer Eats partner, estimates that more than 400,000 students in Massachusetts depend on school-provided meals.
In 2018, the summer program served 2 million meals statewide, including more than 18,500 in Boston. But Erin McAleer, the president of Project Bread, said that statistic captures only a small fraction of young people who regularly worry about the source of their meal.
“Food is the most basic human need,” McAleer said in an interview Wednesday. “Without food, how are students expected to learn, live, and thrive?”
There are more than 100 Summer Eats sites in Boston, made possible through community partnerships with the Mayor’s Office of Food Access, the YMCA of Greater Boston, Boston Public Schools Food and Nutrition Services, and Project Bread, among others. Many locations are deemed “open sites,” allowing students to grab perishable or shelf-stable food without showing any identification.
Scattered about libraries, churches, clinics, and other public areas, program sites also incorporate educational activities to combat what’s been termed “summer slide,” or a decline in learning achievements. The phenomenon is often escalated by inadequate nutrition, said Catalina López-Ospina, the director of the Mayor’s Office of Food Access.
“It’s very important for the city residents to know these places are there for them,” López-Ospina said in an interview. “There’s no shame in being part of these programs.”
At the kickoff event, Summer Eats distributed purple tote bags filled with pouches of three-bean chili that could be cooked in 90 seconds using either a microwave or stovetop. And inside the Cole Center — situated within a Boston Housing Authority apartment complex — volunteers packed turkey sandwiches, fruit, and milk cartons into paper bags.
Valentin’s mother, Amber Holden, said it was stressful to scrounge up three daily meals for her children four years ago, before Summer Eats launched. They lived off sandwiches to stretch their available food, she said, acutely feeling the absence of free school breakfasts and lunches.
Now, Holden, 28, said her family also has chicken caesar salad and make-your-own-pizza kits at their disposal.
“It helps knowing there’s food and resources if we need it,” she said.
To find a Summer Eats meal site, call (800) 645-8333; text “food” or “comida” to 877-877; visit meals4kids.org; or download the “summereats” smartphone app.