At the intersection of Kings Highway and Church Avenue a fruit vendor stands in mid-day heat. Next to his cart, perched on a plastic carton is his bored, five-year-old son. Through his broken English, David Rodriguez explains that he has heard about the free summer meals available to his son 22 blocks away. But he can’t abandon his stand nor let his child maneuver unfamiliar streets and intersections alone.
Across the highway, a telephone booth sports a cheerful yellow poster depicting a smiling girl preparing to bite into a Red Delicious apple. The sign informs passers-by that the Summer Food Service Program (SFSP) is free and open to all kids 18 and under.
Organizations like the Food Bank for New York City, New York City Coalition for Hunger, New York City No Kid Hungry and the USDA do their very best to promote the meals program. Online maps, hotlines and flyers at emergency food centers and housing projects advertise free food locations, while the websites of various anti-hunger organizations, like No Kid Hungry, break it down into bullet points for curious families—noting that the meals follow USDA nutritional guidelines, are served in safe community centers where kids can socialize and attend other programming and don’t require the hassle of filling out an application. Further raising the program’s profile: The American Dairy Association has partnered with New York Yankee alumni, who visited various summer meal sites last month.
Many hope that the hard press will boost participation for the summer meals program, which has always lagged perceived need. Last year 177,688 New York City kids participated in SFSP daily–only 32.6 percent of the youth who receive free and reduced-price lunch during the school year. The United States Department of Agriculture will be spending $400 million on the nationwide program for the two-and-a-half months that it will be in operation.
In the neighborhoods of Northeast Flatbush, Flatbush, Remsen Village, Farragut and Rugby which constitute community district 17, one in four children live in homes that can’t afford an adequate food supply. The area has seen a 6.6 percent increase since 2005 in population receiving income support. With 13,459 elementary and secondary school children in the district receiving free or reduced-price lunch during the school year, the roughly 1,700 children who are fed daily through the district’s free summer meal programming only skims the surface.
A long-standing issue
The Summer Food Service Program’s problem with low-attendance is as old as the program itself. A report by the USDA points to the late 1970’s when fraud and abuses in program administration triggered more oversight and reduced sponsorship. The federal child nutrition program, an agency of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, was eventually adopted and administered by the city Department of Education. While SFSP can be run locally by approved sponsors including camps, government agencies, community centers and private non-profits, in New York City, none but the DOE lay claim.
“In theory, the summer meals program is a very excellent one. Those kids need the nutrition,” explains Agnes Molnar, a co-founder of Community Food Advocates. “But the fact is that when they aren’t in school they don’t go to a congregated site and that makes everything much more complicated.”
Joel Berg, executive director of the New York City Coalition Against Hunger, blames low participation on everything from the heat and a lack of air-conditioned meal sites to rules that prevent caregivers and kids from eating together. “Ten percent of kids in New York City are raised by their grandparents, yet those over 18 years of age can’t eat at SFSP sites and kids can’t eat at senior center meal sites,” Berg notes
Berg also believes the city could do more to promote the meals – from funding recreational centers, which are ideal sites for food distribution to following in the footsteps of Baltimore leaders: The Charm City’s mayor, Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, has gone door-to-door highlighting the SFSP program.
Issues of stigma and taste
These concerns —along with a host of other issues —were on display at meal sites in district 17 during mid-July,
In the five neighborhoods that constitute community district 17, there are five locations operating as summer meal sites, all of which are schools. There are other sites in adjacent neighborhoods, like the Glenwood mini-pool and the Flatbush library.
The Department of Education usually houses its summer meal program sites in schools that are already open for other summer programming, to help keep SFSP cost-neutral. Federal reimbursements only cover food and meal staff, so the other costs associated with a site represent extra fees to schools that have no other programming in-house. The USDA reimburses a site $3.40 for each lunch.
“The paperwork isn’t really less if you’re feeing 20 kids or 200, so for small non-profits, that is a huge burden,” explains Berg. Pantries and soup kitchens that have the biggest child spike during summer months are also being urged to become sponsors with guidance from non-profits like the Food Bank for New York City.
Some see stigma depressing turnout, especially among older kids. “When older students walk into an elementary school they are not always made to feel welcome. Security guards aren’t always aware that meals are open to those under 19 and question them. It’s also not really ‘cool’ for a teen to be hanging out in an elementary cafeteria eating alongside 8-year-olds,” explains Triada Stampas, senior director of government relations for the Food Bank for New York City. Stampas explains that pools are the best place for meal sites as they are less age-restrictive. There are no public pools in Remsen Village, Rugby, Farragut, Flatbush or Northeast Flatbush.
Indeed, on the day a reporter visited P.S. 269 on Nostrand Avenue, the only youth over 15 who entered were counselors of the CAMBA Beacon program, which takes place in the school building. While a small tutoring program brought in some 13 and 14 year-olds, all individual families who came to the site brought children younger than seven.
Attitudes about food can also slash numbers. Many see an anti-poverty food program as lower in quality, when, experts say, the USDA meals are nutritious. “When they started serving meals at pools, supervisors made the mistake of putting food into school food bags. Kids recognized them and reacted negatively,” says Molnar.
In contrast, when popular foods are served, kids come running. Justine, the school service manager at the Samuel J. Tilden campus cafeteria, says she sees highest participation on days when juicy ices are served. “I see kids calling their friends and telling them to come down before they are gone,” she says.
Look who’s coming for lunch
P.S. 244 on Tilden Avenue wins the award for most jam-packed: Every afternoon their huge cafeteria is teeming with kids from several summer school programs, camps and day cares. Lunch one day last month was chicken patties, taco meat, Tostitos, oranges, and banana bread. Those who brought their own food from home—about 15 percent—did not eat the free food along with their peers, though “if they like what’s being served, kids [who bring lunch] will sometimes double up,” says Tony DaCosta a teacher and cafeteria coordinator at P.S. 268.
Even when schools get decent turnout, meal-program staff wonder if they’re addressing all the local need or serving a different clientele. M.S. 246 on Veronica Place serves 544 of their own students free and reduced-price meals during school months but only 300 students in July and August. Only a fraction of those kids normally attend the school – most are bused in from surrounding neighborhood programming and other schools.
The same is true at P.S. 269. “It’s strange that the kids who actually go to this school are not usually here [in the summer],” states Allison, a kitchen supervisor who works at the district school during both the summer and school year. “I recognize some faces, but it’s funny that more kids don’t take advantage.”
The future prospects for participation are mixed. USDA had a promising pilot program that added money to families’ Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program (SNAP, formerly called food stamps) allotment during the summer months. But Congress has cut that back.
Here in the city, though, things look brighter. The city Department of Education has started dispatching summer meals trucks in the Bronx and Queens to hand out food to those on the move. The four trucks have served 111,000 meals so far, with a mobile unit on Main Street, in Flushing, Queens serving an average 1,200 per day.
“It’s a fabulous idea,” says an enthusiastic Molnar. “Now we can really get to the kids where they are.”