Every summer all over Kansas, sites spring up advertising free meals for children.
Problem is, not many kids come and get those meals.
Fewer than 7 percent of Kansas children who are eligible for free or reduced-price lunch at public schools took advantage of summer meal programs last year, according to a report by the Food Research and Action Center, a Washington-based nonprofit.
About 175 people gathered at the Kansas Leadership Center in Wichita on Monday to brainstorm ways to raise awareness and get more meals to more kids.
“Engaging all the people in this room to help actually make the magic happen is key,” said Crystal FitzSimons, director of school programs for the Food Research and Action Center.
“The great thing about the summer food program is there are so many different ways you can run it – creative sites, figuring out where the kids are, going mobile. So there’s a huge opportunity for creative thinking.”
Monday’s summit, sponsored by the Kansas Department of Education and hosted by the Kansas Health Foundation, brought together educators, leaders of nonprofit groups and other advocates for hungry children.
Audrey Rowe, administrator for food and nutrition services at the U.S. Department of Agriculture, urged participants to engage elected officials in the effort, streamline policies and expand the state’s network of summer meal sponsors and sites.
In Wichita last summer, 35 sites offered free breakfasts, lunches or afternoon snacks as part of the Summer Food Service Program, which is run by the Wichita school district and paid for by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
The program is open to all children 18 or younger. No proof of residency or income is required. Some sites offer meals throughout the length of the program; others offer them only on certain days or for only part of the summer.
Officials on Monday noted troublesome gaps in summer meal programs across the state, particularly northwest Kansas.
About half of all summer meal sites in Kansas were in the four largest counties, including Sedgwick. Thirty-one counties had one or two sites. Forty-four counties had no sites serving meals to hungry children during summer months.
And only 13 sites served meals for the duration of children’s summer break, mid-May to mid-August.
“Can your organization, can your nonprofit fill that gap?” said Angela Jeppeson of Harvesters: The Community Food Network. “Because I guarantee you, if the kids were hungry in June and July, they’re still going to be hungry in that last four weeks going into August.”
Jeppeson added that the stigma of being labeled poor could prevent some needy children or families from taking advantage of summer meals.
“I know a lot of kids that will not walk back into a school building during the summertime to get a meal because that’s the stigma,” she said.
“So think outside the box. Heck, get rid of the box altogether. Think about those different places that kids congregate naturally in the summertime.”
For many children, particularly in rural areas, transportation is a challenge. Some states are experimenting with vehicles that can travel to several sites – sometimes along with a mobile library program – to distribute books and meals “like the Good Humor truck,” Rowe said.
Advocates also support increasing the food stipend to families during the summer, to make up for the absence of school breakfasts and lunches.
For more information about the Summer Food Service Program or to become a sponsor or site, visit www.kn-eat.org, or call 785-296-2276.