Thursday, August 15, 2013

Feeding Our Capital's Youth One Summer Meal at a Time

Every year during these last few weeks of the summer break, DCAYA likes to take a look back on the summer and how well our government agency partners executed their summer programming. Today we’ll be focusing on the Office of the State Superintendent for Education’s (OSSE) summer meals program which historically has the top summer meals utilization rates in the nation.

If you’ve been paying any attention this summer, you have heard at least something about the Free Summer Meals Program. OSSE’s Department of Wellness and Nutrition Services administers the program's federal extension of the free and reduced price school lunch program and reimburses organizations that provide meals during the summer to children from low-income areas or to individuals with disabilities.
According to OSSE 
the DC Free Summer Meals Program was created as a safeguard for children in under-served low-income areas to ensure continued access to good nutrition during long school vacations when access to school provided breakfast and lunch meals are unavailable. The health and wellbeing of children in the District is important, therefore access to nutritious meals should not end when school is out.” 
We couldn’t agree more with this statement especially given that nationwide low-income families say they spend an average of $300 more per month on food when kids are out of school.

Summer meals are an open access service in the District which means any young person under 18 can drop-in and get the nutrition they need at a number of sites across the city. There is no proof of income eligibility required, which makes this an especially youth-friendly resource for our city’s young people. As a result many children and youth who take part in summer school, parks and recreation activities and camps and even the Summer Youth Employment Program utilize this service and the District is better for it.

Last year the summer meals program served 26,000 daily meals to children and youth. While this number is impressive, what our friends at DC Hunger Solutions found in their analysis this Spring, was that we’ve actually been experiencing a decline in use from previous years. It was this finding that led to the decision by OSSE to extend the free summer meal program to Saturdays for the remainder of the summer in an effort to expand the reach of the program and ensure that DC’s children and youth have consistent access to nutritious meals.  This shift, combined with the diligent work of the One City Summer Initiative and the outreach that organizations, agencies and concerned community members undertook to get the word out about free summer meals this year, will (we are hopeful) have a measurable impact on youth access to this program for this year and be the first step toward fixing the decline we experienced last year.

At the same time, all stakeholders acknowledge that there is more to be done to maintain high use of this program. Yet, to get there, we need better information on what led to the decline in use of the summer meals program, and some tangible interventions that can be fully implemented for next year. To that end, DCAYA and DC Hunger Solutions are collaborating on a short issue brief (to be released late Summer or early Fall) that explores the causes for this decline, examines the impact of this decline on youth development and presents some solutions to ensure DC remains a leader in ensuring children and youth have access to healthy and nutritious meals.  With that in mind, as you wrap up your summer program and before the crush of fall hits, if you have any suggestions, feedback or thoughts on how we can continue to spread the word about summer meals, remove barriers to access or support expansions of this program please don’t hesitate to share them.  

Anne Abbott is the policy analyst at DC Alliance of Youth Advocates. Her favorite summer meal as a kid was the traditional PB&J, on special occasions she'd add in a banana. To contact her with suggestions for the summer meals program you can email her at 

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