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‘Hunger doesn’t take a vacation’

In Philadelphia, 22 percent of children are food-insecure. The city is hoping more families take advantage of free summer meals.

This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.

It’s lunchtime at the Gesu School summer camp, and Laura Weatherby, who leads the summer meal site there, calls up kids by class. Students file one by one to the front of the room to get their cartons of milk and boxed lunches. Today’s meal: carrots, an apple, a cheese stick, and a soy nut butter and jelly sandwich.

Weatherby carefully tallies the number of kids who take a box to make sure no one misses a lunch, provided free of charge to students.

“The program gives the opportunity for students to get healthy breakfast and lunch,” said Weatherby. “They get a variety as well. They get stuff they normally wouldn’t have. It helps parents financially.”

Gesu School in North Philadelphia is one of the nearly 1,200 summer meal sites in Philadelphia, some of which operate out of schools. The Archdiocese of Philadelphia, which runs the Gesu site’s meal program, is one of the local partners distributing food.

When the school year ends, thousands of families must adapt to the loss of free meals that schools provide. Despite the city’s extensive free summer meal offerings, many parents fail to access them.

“There’s definitely a lack of knowledge that summer meals are available and where,” said Siobhan Hickey, coordinator of Mayor Nutter’s Fun Safe Philly Summer, an initiative that works to provide a network of resources to youth in the summer.

In Philadelphia, 96 percent of the city’s 189,000 public school students were eligible and enrolled for free or reduced price lunch in 2014, according to the Pennsylvania Department of Education. Mayor Nutter’s office reports that only 42 percent of students eligible for free and reduced school lunch take advantage of summer meals.

Nationwide, one in eight eligible children access summer meals. Though Philadelphia’s rate is much higher than that, the Mayor’s Office said it is still too low.

Notebook food edition
A meal served at the Gesu School summer camp on July 10. (Photo: Michaela Ward)
Like cafeteria meals, summer meals need to meet nutritional requirements set by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. They usually consist of a piece of fruit, a vegetable, skim milk, and a source of protein, like the soy nut butter sandwich or chicken nuggets.

The summer meal program is federally funded by the Department of Agriculture as a part of the nationwide initiative to address child food insecurity, which is defined as having unreliable access to the food necessary for a healthy life.

Consistent access to healthy food is more difficult to find in high-poverty areas. Philadelphia is one of America’s poorest big cities, with a poverty rate of 26 percent in 2013. Philadelphia’s overall food insecurity rate and child food insecurity rate are both 22 percent.

Summer meal funding flows from the federal level to the state level. In Pennsylvania, the state’s Department of Education provides funding to cities like Philadelphia, where major local partners such as the Archdiocese, the Parks and Recreation Department and the School District of Philadelphia are in charge of the meal distribution.

Though not directly involved in handing out meals, other partner organizations, like the Coalition Against Hunger, offer resources and food education to children and families.

“We identify neighborhoods where we have sites and where we need them,” said Shannon Mackia, an outreach coordinator for the Coalition Against Hunger. “Because of poverty levels, almost all of the city is considered area eligible. So if people want to set up a program, it can be done.”

Philadelphia’s high poverty rate means that everyone under 18 years of age is welcome. Meal sites do not require participants to show identification or proof of income or registration.

“The goal is to get as many sites out there to serve kids,” said Anne Ayella, assistant director of the Nutritional Development Services of the Archdiocese of Philadelphia.

Many of the meals sites are associated with camps or programs, like Palumbo Recreation Center in Bella Vista. Palumbo’s camp makes any extra meals available to neighborhood families.

The city also sponsors sites called playstreets in quiet streets and other patches of the city. The Archdiocese has outdoor sites. Both programs were made to reach children who may not be able to attend camps.

The stigma surrounding hunger-related issues is a challenge that organizers are trying to address. Programs are adjusting so that more people who could benefit from the meals will take advantage of them.

“Folks don’t want to have to say that they can’t feed their families. I think there is definitely a stigma to free and reduced-price lunches, but that is something that Summer Meals is helping to change," said Tom Mahon, communications manager for the Coalition Against Hunger.

Ayella of the Archdiocese said that her group is aware of the stigma and is consciously trying to make the sites attractive to kids.

“We try to put fun and nutritional activities at outdoor sites. We hate for it to look like an outdoor soup kitchen for kids. I give out crayons, give a little talk. If it was strictly Come in, eat, go home, there’d be more of a stigma,” Ayella said.

The School District also works with the Archdiocese to make outdoor sites more appealing, sending volunteers to read stories and lead nutrition-centered activities. Another such effort is the First Book program, run by the nonprofit that distributes thousands of free books in Philadelphia. First Book has partnered with the city’s playstreets program to give out books at these meal sites, too.

Although the summer meal program is intended to benefit children directly, its benefits reach beyond the kids.

“It’s helpful for parents who have to work and don’t have time to pack lunches and get ready,” said Marcel Allen, a 10-year-old who attends the Starr Garden recreation center’s summer camp at Sixth and Lombard Street. “Then the kids don’t need to worry about what they will eat. They just know they’ll have something at camp.”

Like the Gesu School, the city-run Starr Garden summer camp also serves as a meal site. Students attending these camps have the option to bring their lunch or eat the meal provided.

Nynra Danny, 6, also a Starr Garden camper, likes the meals.

“It helps you grow,” said Nynra, raising his hands in the air to illustrate growing.

Despite having such benefits for kids, the summer meal sites are still not being accessed by as many people as they aim to serve, according to Coalition Against Hunger.

Hickey at Fun Safe Philly Summer said that there are three resources available to help parents and kids find summer meals: a texting service, a hotline, and an online interactive map.

The texting service allows people to text "food" (or “mealPA,” though this phrase is being phased out) or “comida” in Spanish to 877877, to get directions to nearby sites.

The Coalition Against Hunger also provides a hotline (1-855-252-MEAL) with the same information in multiple languages.

The map above, available on the city’s website and the Coalition Against Hunger’s website, also details meal site locations, hours of operation, when meals are being served, and how the site leader can be contacted.

The summer meal program has created these resources to make the programs more accessible and to ensure that kids don’t miss out on nutrition over the summer.

“Hunger doesn’t take a vacation,” said Ayella.

Samantha Weiss and Michaela Ward are summer interns at the Notebook.

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