LEXINGTON, Ky. — Thousands of children across Kentucky rely on their schools to serve a hot meal for breakfast and lunch, and even a snack during the day. But what happens at the end of the school year?
What do you want to know
- The number of meals served boosted by the pandemic
- The program is over 45 years old
- Nearly 3,000 restoration sites in Kentucky
- Locations are places with high percentages of food insecure school children
The Kentucky Department of Education and the United States Department of Agriculture’s Summer Food Service Program (SFSP) served more than 8.7 million meals in Kentucky in the summer of 2021 over nearly of 3000 sites across the Commonwealth. While the program director said the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic has increased that number, the need to provide nutritious breakfast, lunch, snacks and dinner to growing children is still there, especially in summer.
With summer still months away, the National Education Department is already asking schools and nonprofits to sponsor the SFSP. Restoration sites are usually found in public places such as schools, community centers, parks, PMQs, and places operated by faith-based organizations.
Cathy Gallagher, summer food service program manager for the School and Community Nutrition Division of the Kentucky Department of Education, said the SFSP is suffering from an “identity crisis.”
“The program has been around for over 45 years, but not everyone knows about it,” she said. “He provides nutritious meals and follows a meal pattern during the summer when the children are out of school. It fills the gap between when children leave school in the spring and when they return to school in the fall.
Meals provided by the SFSP are at open sites in areas where at least 50% of children qualify for free or reduced school meals and where half of children are from families with an income of 185 or less. % of federal poverty line. In response to the COVID-19 pandemic, the USDA lifted these restrictions in 2020 and 2021, allowing free meals to be distributed through SFSP in all regions. Any child can have a meal on an open site and income is not verified. Gallagher is unsure if the pre-pandemic guidelines will be in place again this summer.
Program guidelines require sponsoring organizations to be a public or private nonprofit school food authority, including school districts; a non-profit public or private residential summer camp; a unit of local, municipal, county or state government; or other private non-profit organizations.
Groups interested in learning more about program assistance can attend a free online training by registering here. Gallagher said about 200 organizations have partnered with the program in 2021, and “a few” rural counties in south-central and western Kentucky lack restoration sites.
“If a child is in a county without a place to eat, the family can go to a neighboring county. It’s not always the most practical, but it can be done. It’s possible. The kids might even be in Fulton County and crossing the Tennessee border to get to a site and have a meal. They are open to everyone. If kids in Missouri are visiting grandparents in Bowling Green, they can go to a food site and eat.
A meal site is a physical location, approved by the state agency, where program meals are served for a supervised period. Sponsors may serve meals at one or more venues.
Nearly one in five children in Kentucky will struggle with childhood hunger, which means 20% of all children in Kentucky live in households that struggle to put food on the table, according to KY Kids Eat.
“The sponsors are the local organizations that run the meal program, and it’s usually a school district or it can be a nonprofit or a government organization,” Gallagher said. “Sponsors must agree to program guidelines and complete training, complete paperwork and submit an application. They buy the food, they prepare the meals and they serve the meals. They keep records of what they have served and deposit them with us, which are forwarded to the USDA and they receive a refund.
Kentucky residents 18 years of age or younger are eligible for the SFSP.
Kentucky’s two largest counties, Jefferson and Fayette, have high percentages of food-insecure children. There are nearly 66,000 children ages 18 and under in Fayette County and 10,570 are considered food insecure, a total of 22.4 percent. Jefferson County has more than 172,000 children under the age of 18 and nearly 29,000 are considered food insecure, a total of 16.8%.
The COVID-19 pandemic forced changes in the summers of 2020 and 2021. The number of meals served through the SFSP and program expenditures were 8.9 and 8.7 times higher than in 2019.
These increases can be attributed to increased food needs during the pandemic and the USDA’s response to meet those needs, which included waivers expanding the scope and coverage of the SFSP. The program grew rapidly during the first months of the pandemic, serving approximately 564.4 million meals nationwide from March to May 2020. Comparatively, 1.2 million meals were served during the same period in 2019. The increase is the result, in part, of allowing diners to eat during the pandemic over the past two summers, Gallagher said.
“The program requires the child to receive a meal and stay and eat the meal. This is called the gathering requirement where children eat in a communal setting,” she said. “The benefit of this is that you know the meals are going to whoever they are meant for as it is an under 18 program. During the pandemic this was not practical so families could pick up meals and leave, sometimes meals for multiple days. These were USDA flexibilities extended during the pandemic. If these will be available this summer, we are still waiting to hear.
Sign up here to sponsor or volunteer for the SFSP. Sponsors must be organizations fully capable of operating a foodservice program and complying with federal and state regulations. Sponsors must also be financially and administratively responsible for the management of their program.
Gallagher said when this year’s program is fully implemented, one will be able to text “food” or “Comida” to 304304 to locate a nearby food site and hours of operation.