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Resumption Of Summer Youth Programs Means Better Access To Free Meals

Tanjela Jones, programs director for The Child Core Foundation, readies snacks at an apartment complex in Festus last week, June 4, 2018. The nonprofit will serve snacks and dinner to about 50 children out of the community room this summer.
File photo / Ryan Delaney
St. Louis Public Radio
Tanjela Jones, programs director for the Child Core Foundation, readies snacks at an apartment complex in Festus in June 2018. Most drop-in sites like this where kids can easily get meals did not operate last summer.

Kids will be able to get out of the house more easily this summer. And as they return to camps, rec centers and summer school, nutrition programs will be able to get ham sandwiches and cartons of milk into their hands.

After one of the largest feeding programs in the country — public schools — closed last spring, food insecurity and hunger shot up, researchers at Northwestern University found. As school lets out for this summer, there is less panic among child welfare agencies about kids going hungry, though there’s still the concern.

“I think last summer was really kind of a trial and error. It was such a new, crazy situation that people were finding themselves in,” said Christine Woody, the policy organizer with Empower Missouri, a nonprofit advocacy group.

“I'm optimistic that we’ll do a much better job this year, just because we'll have that experience and understanding and success from the school year of having gone through it already.”

School districts made feeding children a main priority after they closed buildings in the early weeks of the pandemic. For a few months, families could pull up to school buildings and pick up a box of breakfasts and lunches to go.

Federal officials temporarily boosted nutrition assistance programs during the pandemic and put the money the Department of Agriculture normally spends on school lunches directly in the bank accounts of low-income families. Another change was allowing families to walk away from pickup locations with a week’s worth of food, instead of a single day's.

“I don't know if we'd say we reached more kids,” said Brian Wieher of Operation Food Search, “but we reached more families more times.”

However, many of those programs have ended or are phasing out, while the padded food stamps program will continue through September. Fortunately, anti-hunger advocates say, the infrastructure that normally feeds kids in the summer is restarting.

“All of these additional supports, and easing the access to these extra supports, are all going to be beneficial for families who are struggling,” Empower Missouri’s Woody said.

More than 5 million children nationwide are food insecure, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Demand for free breakfast and lunch outpaces availability across most of Missouri. President Joe Biden’s proposed federal budget includes a $75 monthly stipend to pay for meals during the summer.

Several organizations, including Operation Food Search, work to deliver free meals to youth centers and summer programs, such as camps and summer school. OFS’s Wieher said long-standing sources of summer meals will be back online this summer, but not at full capacity.

“It's just been such a flux,” he said of social distancing rules and the ability for program organizers to make solid plans. “So I think we will see the traditional food service locations at the traditional youth centers, but not in great numbers.”

Because hours and services may not be quite back to prepandemic normal, OFS’s Wieher said organizations “are working overtime” on messaging to inform families about where to find services.

OFS has a map of where to find child meal programs in the St. Louis region as well as a landing page for updates on other food assistance programs. Beyond St. Louis, the USDA has a similar searchable map.

Follow Ryan on Twitter: @rpatrickdelaney

Ryan was an education reporter at St. Louis Public Radio.