Northern Virginia Schools Fight Summer Food Insecurity
By Hadley Turner
Summer is supposed to be a time for kids to enjoy a well-deserved break from the demands of the school year; it's something many children look forward to. But for children whose families suffer from food insecurity, summertime is anything but relaxing.
During the school year, children from low-income families often can receive free or reduced-price meals (including both breakfast and lunch) at school if their families earn less than 130% or 130% to 185% of the poverty level, respectively.1 In the summertime, however, these children often are left hanging. In 2015, 22.1 million kids received free or reduced-price meals during the school year, but only 3.8 million were provided summer meals.2
Feeding in Fairfax
One school district in Northern Virginia has stepped in to address the summer gap in hunger relief. Fairfax County Public Schools' Office of Food and Nutrition Services offers a USDA-funded program called FEEDS (Food for Every Child to Eat During Summer). The program features barbecue lunches at multiple sites, including 11 schools, a community center, and a low-income apartment community. FEEDS runs Monday through Friday, beginning the Monday after school lets out for summer vacation until the Friday before children head back to school, with the exception of July 4th. It's free to children aged 18 and younger, while adults are charged $2. There's no income restriction on the free meals; they're open to everyone.3
"We serve as the safety net to ensure every kid that's at risk has a place to go," says Rodney Taylor, the school district's director of food and nutrition services, who suffered from food insecurity in his youth, an experience that has served as the impetus for his fervent support of the program.4 Taylor began the summer program in 2016 to address food insecurity among Fairfax County's students. He hopes to serve 30 sites by next summer in an effort to reach the "53,000 students who are at home and at risk" during the summer.
Fairfax County is one of the nation's wealthiest communities, according to the US Census Bureau.5 But poverty takes its toll nonetheless; about 28% of Fairfax County students qualify for free and reduced-price lunches.1
With children witnessing such rampant income inequality, it's no surprise that part of Taylor's goal is to remove the stigma attached to receiving free meals. "When you think of a BBQ, that puts you in a positive mood. I decided to start doing summer BBQs to change the perception of handing out meals from 'You're poor; come and eat,' to something festive," he says.
Good Meals Aren't Hard to Find
The bounty and variety of the lunches certainly don't make the BBQs feel like charity. Attendees can choose from hamburgers, hot dogs, chicken patties, rib patties, turkey sausage links, and veggie burgers. Taylor wanted to provide many entrée options so if children came every day for lunch, they wouldn't have to always eat the same thing.
Fresh produce is another highlight of the meals. "The great thing about the summer is that produce is plentiful," Taylor says. Sides such as grilled corn, refreshing watermelon, and baby carrots fill the rest of the trays. Finally, the trays are topped off with milk, which qualifies the lunches for partial USDA reimbursement just like the free lunches are during the school year.
Fairfax County Public Schools use what's called the Seamless Summer Option of providing free summer meals. This option enables schools to be reimbursed at the same rates as they would through the National School Lunch Program or School Breakfast Program, but meals may be served at community locations such as churches, parks, libraries, and housing projects. The Seamless Summer Option is open to school foodservice administrators who participate in the National School Lunch or Breakfast Program during the school year.6 With the USDA's funding in combination with adult meal sales, the school district contributed about $200,000 to the program in 2016.4
Three low-income apartment communities in the district also receive what the program calls "Super Snacks." According to Taylor, these consist of meat and/or meat and cheese cold sandwiches with cold sides and milk that would be provided at the BBQs. School employees drop these lunches off at local churches, which deliver the meals to apartments. These meals are meant "more for latchkey kids whose parents don't want them leaving the house," Taylor says.
What It Takes
Feeding an average of 1,750 people per day takes much planning and many hands. Fortunately, this need has proven to be beneficial for foodservice workers as well as those they serve.
In addition to the minimum of four people working at each site to serve food, the district's central kitchens stay functioning throughout the summer. This provides about 200 of the district's foodservice workers with the opportunity to work year-round.
"Many of our employees [work] 10 months, but their bills don't stop coming during the summer," Taylor says. "I like to create opportunities for employees that want to work 12 months."
Fresh and Local
Taylor says that most foods served during the summer come from the same vendors the district uses during the school year. Currently, it partners with one local farmer, who provides a small amount of the summer produce served. However, the district is beginning to move toward getting more foods from local sources.
"We just hired a farm-to-school coordinator, and we're hiring a salad bar coordinator," Taylor says. He remarks that while it would be logistically impossible to obtain all produce from local sources because of the school district's size, "at some point, we're going to be bringing in as much as we can get."
Regardless of where the food is coming from, at this point, the district's program is filling a crucial need for local kids, a goal Taylor is proud to meet.
"Part of my charge when I came here was to change perceptions, not just of quality [of foods served at schools], but perceptions of school foodservice. The daily outdoor BBQs are part of that," he says.
— Hadley Turner is an editorial assistant for Today's Dietitian and RDLounge.com.
1. Free and reduced-price meals. Fairfax County Public Schools website. https://www.fcps.edu/node/31049. Accessed July 25, 2017.
2. US Department of Agriculture. Working with schools. https://www.fns.usda.gov/sites/default/files/sfsp/SMT_Schools.pdf. Published June 3, 2016. Accessed July 26, 2017.
3. FEEDS: Food for Every Child to Eat During Summer. Fairfax County Public Schools website. https://www.fcps.edu/feeds. Accessed July 25, 2017.
4. Balingit M. To reach hungry children in the summer, these school cafeterias moved outside. The Washington Post. June 29, 2017. https://www.washingtonpost.com/local/education/to-reach-hungry-children-in-the-summer-these-school-cafeterias-moved-outside/2017/06/29/c82bc356-5b76-11e7-9fc6-c7ef4bc58d13_story.html?utm_term=.163b1559389b. Accessed July 25, 2017.
5. Northern Virginia dominates list of high-income counties, Census Bureau reports. US Census Bureau website. https://www.census.gov/newsroom/press-releases/2013/cb13-214.html. Published December 12, 2013. Accessed July 25, 2017.6. US Department of Agriculture. Comparison of programs SFSP/NSLP/Seamless Option. https://www.fns.usda.gov/sites/default/files/SFSP_SeamlessComparisonChart.pdf. Published January 22, 2015. Accessed July 27, 2017.