By Alison Bosma
By Gerry Tuoti
Wicked Local Newsbank Editor
Paul Mina calls the summer the “hungriest time of the year,” for families and schoolchildren especially.
“It’s a time when people aren’t thinking about it,” Mina, president and CEO of United Way of Tri-County, a nonprofit that operates three food pantries in MetroWest, said. “We don’t get a lot of donations. As a result, we’re struggling to provide people with the quantity of food.”
On top of the lack of donations, the 300,000 children statewide who qualify for free or reduced-price lunch at school are without that meal now that classes are off for summer break.
“In the summertime when they’re out of school, those meals are not there, so that creates a problem for many families,” Mina said. He added, “Oftentimes (low-income families) depend on the school program .... to feed their children.”
Last year, federally funded free summer meals programs provided an average of 53,000 lunches per day to children statewide. That represents about 18 percent of students who received free or reduced-price lunch during the school year.
“Low-income children are really at risk for hunger and malnutrition during the summer months,” said Jordan Smith, community relations coordinator for Project Bread’s Child Nutrition Outreach Team.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture provides reimbursements to organizations that serve breakfast, lunch, dinner or snacks through the federal Summer Food Service Program. The state Department of Elementary and Secondary Education oversees the programs in Massachusetts, and receives technical assistance from Project Bread, the nonprofit that organizes the annual Boston Walk for Hunger.
In most cases, in order to receive the federal reimbursement from the USDA, summer meals programs must be located in an area where at least half the children are in families living below 185 percent of the federal poverty line. At open-site programs, children can just show up during designated hours to get a free meal. No enrollment or paperwork is required.
Low-income children living in other areas may not be close enough to get to a meal site, particularly in rural areas, Smith said.
In Southborough, feeding those in need is a task taken on by five local churches, without federal help, though they do see some assistance from the Worcester County Food Bank. The churches benefit from donation drives during the school year, organized by Boy and Girl Scouts, and specific schools, but that falls off in the summer, said Karen White, one of Southborough’s food pantry coordinators.
“Maybe during the year they may come in twice a month,” White said, adding that the pantry serves about 60 families year-round, spending about $600 each summer on food. ”(During the summer), a lot of times they’ll come in twice a week.”
The USDA also provides reimbursements to eligible closed-site programs. These are often summer day camps or recreation programs. Children must be enrolled in those programs to participate. To qualify for the federal reimbursement, at least half a program’s enrolled participants must meet federal income eligibility requirements.
The MetroWest YMCA’s summer food program is a closed site that offers breakfast and lunch to all campers, no questions asked, and is run through the Framingham Public Schools.
“It’s a problem and it shouldn’t be,” MetroWest YMCA Chief Operating Officer Jeanne Sherlock said, of the lack of summer meals for children. “Nobody should be hungry for that matter, but when you start to think about kids, who are so vulnerable and trying to learn.... We know if they’re hungry, they can’t learn.”
There are approximately 1,000 Summer Food Service Program sites in Massachusetts. The USDA provides a reimbursement of up to $3.74 per meal. Reimbursement rates are less for breakfasts and snacks, and when a program uses an outside vendor.
In an effort to raise awareness and increase participation in Summer Food Services Programs, Project Bread and the DESE work to identify new potential sites and find sponsors to run local programs.
Technology is also playing a role in getting the word out.
This year, Project Bread, in partnership with the DESE, launched the SummerEats App for iOS and Android devices. The free mobile app shows nearby sites where children and teens can access free meals during the summer.
“Clearly the need is there,” Smith said. “There are about 243,000 kids in Massachusetts who would be eating a free or reduced-price lunch as part of their daily routine who aren’t getting a free lunch in the summer.”
How can you help?
“Donate to your food pantries,” Sherlock said. “This is a very vulnerable time for families when school is out of session.”
Food pantry directors and coordinators usually have a solid handle on what the pantry needs at any given time, and are happy to provide a list to people looking to donate.
“Cereal, always cereal,” Southborough’s White said, of what her pantry needs. “Right now, we’re really low on mustard, ketchup, mayonnaise, oil.”
United Way of Tri-County’s Mina pointed out that some organizations prefer money to donations, because nonprofits can receive a discount from places like the Boston or Worcester County food banks. United Way is also looking for summer volunteers, he said.
LOCAL CHILDREN IN NEED
The Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education two years ago launched a program that offered free and reduced-price meals to every student in schools with high concentrations of low-income students. It therefore stopped including statistics for schoolchildren eligible for free and reduced-price lunches in annual reports. A new category “economically disadvantaged” was formed, specifically including children who participate in SNAP, transitional assistance, DCF foster care or MassHealth, but does not accurately track the students who are without lunches when school is out. The below numbers are from the 2013-2014 school year, the last year the department tracked free and reduced-price numbers.
LI (low income) FL (free lunch) RL (reduced lunch)
Ashland LI: 321 (12.4 percent) FL: 271 (10.5 percent) RL: 50 (1.9 percent)
Framingham LI: 3,285 (39.7 percent) FL: 2,730 (33 percent) RL: 555 (6.7 percent)
Holliston LI: 155 (5.5 percent) FL: 126 (4.5 percent) RL: 29 ( 1 percent)
Hopkinton LI: 84 (2.4 percent) FL: 73 (2.1 percent) RL: 11 (.3 percent)
Hudson LI: 753 (25.6 percent) FL: 616 (20.9 percent) RL: 137 (4.6 percent)
Marlborough LI: 2,047 (45.1 percent) FL: 1,653 (36.4 percent) RL: 394 (8.7 percent)
Natick LI: 509 (9.6 percent) FL: 417 (7.9 percent) RL: 92 (1.7 percent)
Northborough-Southborough LI: 80 (5.4 percent) FL: 75 (5.1 percent) RL: 5 (.3 percent)
Northborough LI: 178 (9.8 percent) FL: 139 (7.7 percent) RL: 39 (2.2 percent)
Shrewsbury LI: 903 (15 percent) FL: 593 (9.9 percent) RL: 310 (5.2 percent)
Southborough LI: 44 (3.2 percent) FL: 32 (2.3 percent) RL: 12 (.9 percent)
Sudbury LI: 124 (4.2 percent) FL: 106 (3.6 percent) RL: 18 (.6 percent)
Wayland LI: 174 (6.5 percent) FL: 126 (4.7 percent) RL: 48 (1.8 percent)
Westborough LI: 362 (10.1 percent) FL: 278 (7.8 percent) RL: 84 (2.3 percent)
Weston LI: 85 (3.6 percent) FL: 65 (2.8 percent) RL: 20 (.9 percent)