by Patti Singer
If the children aren’t coming to the meals, maybe the meals need to go to the children.
In trying to figure out why only about one in four youngsters in the Rochester City School District who participated in the lunch program during the school year took advantage of free meals in the summer, the adults in charge of linking kids and food looked for new approaches.
They started a food truck as a pilot program three years ago, but now it is a fixture in neighborhoods where the recreation center or library may be out of walking distance for some of the children.
“With the summer meals food truck, we’re able to to fill the gaps,” said Dina Faticone, co-chair of the Summer Meals Partnership of Rochester.
The food truck is one way the partnership is trying to reverse a recent decrease. Overall in the past couple of summers, fewer Rochester children have taken advantage of the free meals.
In 2017, the average number of lunches served per weekday in July was about 5,500. That number was about 5,100 in 2018. In 2015, the average number served was about 7,600. Meals are not served on weekends or holidays.
Summer meals have been available under United States Department of Agriculture guidelines for decades. The Summer Meals Partnership of Rochester formed in 2011 after The Children’s Agenda reported a decline in the number of children taking advantage of free meals when school was out. The partnership began publicizing its effort and tracking data in 2012.
“We are still up from where we started several years ago,” Faticone said. “We have still seen positive gains, but a little bit less of those the past two years.” She put the decline over that time at about 7% a year.
Federal rules allow for all students to get a free lunch if more than 60% of families would be eligible for free or reduced-price lunch. Faticone said that under this community eligibility, approximately 21,000 RCSD students on average per day had a school-sponsored lunch.
She said not all students would be expected to need meals during the summer. The Summer Meals Partnership set a goal of feeding at least half the students who relied on school meals, which set a target of about 10,000 youngsters.
“We have a lot more work to do,” she said. “We’re not satisfied until we know all kids that need a meal are getting a meal.”
The partnership members have enlisted more sites, such as community and faith organizations. But proximity matters. Faticone said data show people aren’t likely to walk more than one-quarter mile to get to a location. The food truck is considered for areas outside that radius.
The partnership also has more sites staying open through August whereas in previous years, the majority of sites were open only for July. She said grants from the Rochester Area Community Foundation have helped sites stay open longer and/or serve more children.
However, families may be reluctant to send a child for just a meal. Adults can accompany a child, but the meals are for only 18 and younger.
“One thing we identified as a hypothesis is the participation in summer meals is very much tied to the availability of summer programming in our community,” said Faticone, who manages the Healthi Kids program as part of her role as director of Community Health and Engagement at Common Ground Health. “As we look at the trends in data, (they) follow the ebb and flow of available summer slots.”
She gave examples of libraries that host reading programs and recreation centers that hold open gym. As a result, the Summer Meals Partnership is working with sites to have more for the youngsters to do.
“We want to wrap an activity around that meal,” she said.
To find the closest summer meal location, go to summermealsroc.org or call 211.