Note: Thousands of children in Nebraska are food insecure and struggle to get enough to eat in the summer months when they are out of school. Summer Food Service Program sites across the state do amazing work helping feed kids each year to make sure they don’t go hungry. During “National Summer Food Service Program Week,” we will feature several of these sites that help feed Nebraska kids each summer.
Mike Heyl is proud that Lincoln has one of the highest participation rates in the state when it comes to kids eligible to receive free meals through the Summer Food Service Program (SFSP).
But there’s still more that can be done and more kids that can be fed, he said.
Mike, a public health educator with the Lincoln/Lancaster County Health Department, oversees all 32 of Lincoln’s Summer Food Service Program sites. These sites provide meals to children during the summer months when many kids often go hungry when not in school.
Find an SFSP site serving meals in your neighborhood with this interactive map from Hunger Free Heartland.
In Lincoln, about 15,000 children are eligible for free or reduced-price school lunches, but only about 3,500 participate in the summer food program, according to Mike. That’s still one of highest percentages in the state and above the national average for participation according to a new report from the national Food Research and Action Center.
“The national average is only about 10 or 15 percent participation,” Mike said.
Mike and other site organizers look for ways to increase participation in the summer meals program and get more kids to the table in hopes of making sure no Lincoln child goes hungry in the summer. Many summer food sites are held in conjunction with day camps or other educational programs that run throughout the day, offered on a sliding cost scale to families, to help attract more children.
One of these sites is Belmont Elementary School in northwest Lincoln, where Mike invited a group of Nebraska Appleseed volunteers to help serve lunch at Belmont’s summer food program which provides around 175 meals to kids each day. Belmont’s site has a gym and is near a swimming pool, which helps attract children. Most of the kids eating lunch Tuesday were from Belmont’s summer camp program which provides activities between meals. On Tuesday, kids were headed to a field trip to the Lincoln Children’s Zoo right after lunch.
“Kids come here year-round for structure and guidance,” Mike said. “They know this place.”
Belmont is an open site, meaning any child can receive a free meal there since more than 50 percent of the families in Belmont’s community qualify for free or reduced-price school lunch. Most Lincoln sites serve at least two meals. The children at Belmont can eat breakfast and lunch, as well as an afternoon snack, said Lindsay Limbach, an Americorps volunteer who helps organize the Belmont food programs.
“The kids are wonderful, even though they give you guff every now and then,” Lindsay said.
To feed so many kids across Lincoln in the summer requires a team effort. Many sites do not have sufficient kitchen space to prepare a large number of meals on site, so meals are prepared each morning at Lincoln North Star High School. The meals are then packed into 200 coolers to distribute to the 32 sites across the city.
Site volunteers carefully count the meals once they arrive and make sure any meals not served are quickly put into cold storage where any unopened food can be offered to children again for the next couple days. This helps prevent food waste and also lets children who enjoyed a certain meal come back for seconds the next day.
Lindsay arrives each morning around 7:45 and begins organizing the breakfasts that arrive via cooler with the help of children who already have arrived. Breakfast runs from 8:00-9:00, and Lindsay said she serves between 35-50 breakfasts per day. She has dubbed her regular group of kids “The Breakfast Club,” and the group often stays after the meal to listen to Lindsay teach them about nutrition of the breakfast they just have eaten.
Lindsay added since Belmont is an open site, she serves lunch to about 10-15 kids from the community who are not in Belmont’s summer camp program. Sites across the city continue to try to get word about the SFSP site to increase attendance. She said she gets nervous on days when her regular attending kids don’t show up.
“I know most of the kids, so I get worried when they don’t come,” Lindsay said. “I don’t know if they’ve eaten or not.”
Sites like Belmont all across the state continue the fight to stamp out hunger for Nebraska’s kids during the summer months, and more sites can always help reach children in their community.
Anyone considering start another SFSP site in Lincoln can call Mike Heyl at (402) 441-3889 or 441-8045 for more information. To find out how to start a program to help kids in your community, contact the Nebraska Department of Education, which oversees the Summer Food Service Program in Nebraska, by calling (800) 731-2233, or visit the USDA’s SFSP website.
Operating a Summer Food Service Program site can make a real difference to kids in your community and give our children the best start going into the new school year!
See photos from SFSP sites feeding kids across Nebraska in our Summer Food Service Program online photo album.
See recent local media coverage of Nebraska SFSP sites: