Guest blogger: Summer Food Service Program (SFSP)

In the last year we have heard a lot about the National School Breakfast and Lunch Program, especially in relation to childhood obesity. School meals have been criticized as being unhealthy but are also see as an avenue to provide healthy meals to kids and educate them about healthy, local, and fresh foods. However, a program that I have come to know very well is very rarely recognized or discussed. That program is the Summer Food Service Program (SFSP).

A troubling but very real fact is that a large swath of the American public has no idea that such a program exists. The program has been funded by the USDA since 1968 and has fed millions of children. However millions more miss the opportunity due to its lack of exposure. On average less than a quarter of the children who are eligible for free/reduced priced school meals participate in the SFSP. What do the other 75%+ children do? What do they eat? Do they eat at all? These are questions that haunt me and that is why, when the time strikes I talk about the program and why we should ALL spread the word about SFSP.

The Summer Food Service Program fills a very important hunger gap for children when the school year ends. The catch phrase for the program – “Food that’s In – When School Is Out” typifies the program’s purpose – to ensure that children in need of healthy meals in the summer-time receive them. Having balanced and healthy meals every day is considered important for people of all ages and the SFSP recognizes that the summer can be a time of financial stress for families, and sadly, a time of malnutrition and hunger for kids. What is great about SFSP is that it is free to all children 18 and under and does not require any ID or registration to get a meal. You could be from Texas and go to a site in Massachusetts to receive a lunch, no questions asked. The benefits of the SFSP are bountiful. It relieves families of the financial burden of meals during the summer and children get healthy meals, programming, and fun all summer long!

SFSP works like this: School Food Service Programs and Community Organizations apply to be SFSP Sponsors. Sponsors provide administrative support to sites and their responsibilities range from staffing, paper work, tracking reimbursement for the meals, etc. Organizations that have the capability can provide their own meals to sites or hire a vendor. Sponsors and vendors provide administrative support and food to the sites. Sites, like sponsors, need to be non-profits or government agencies. Typically sites are where children receive meals and often times have some sort of programming. A site can be a camp, park, school, food pantry, etc. Sites must be located in a low income census track or within a mile of a public school where 50% of the children receive free/reduced priced meals. The sponsors and sites work together to ensure there are enough meals every day and that there is sufficient promotion so participation is high enough to continue for summers to come.

So that is all the technical stuff, but why does it really matter? For many families, putting food on the table with shrinking pay checks and dwindling unemployment benefits has become more difficult. Children need and deserve healthy, consistent summer meals to ensure that they are sharp and energized for the coming fall. Without these meals kids come back to school mal-nourished and at an academic disadvantage before they even step into the classroom. The Summer Food Service Program provides programming, a safe place to go during the day, and of course food and fun! I cannot think of a better and more essential program to support and promote.

The SFSP is under-exposed and under-utilized. We can all do our part to spread the word. Find out about the Summer Food Service Program in your community, see if you can become a site or sponsor, and most of all, do not let this important program fall into the shadows. Many children need it; they just do not know it yet.

Submitted by an Anonymous Community Coordinator and Administrative Assistant to a Child Nutrition Outreach Program on the East Coast

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16 thoughts on “Guest blogger: Summer Food Service Program (SFSP)

  1. Hi all! I like this article and can say I have first hand knowledge of this program. I am teacher in a rural school district that utilizes this program every summer. I understand what the author means when they say it isn't as well known as it should be. I know that my district begins sending home information for the SFSP in early May and continues right up to the end of the school year.
    I'm not sure about other areas of the country but here, it seems likes the meals offered are of good quality. While nothing is "homemade" it isn't small reheated containers that Mrs. Q experiences either. In fact, some of our summer school teachers (who work in the same building as the SFSP) actually eat and enjoy the meals.
    I often wonder/worry about my students over the summer and this program helps me feel a little better about "turning them loose" for three long months.
    I hope the program continues, improves and expands in the years to come!
    Thanks for spot lighting a worthy cause 🙂

  2. Also worth noting: when I wrote about the summer lunch program, I went to our municipality's site: foods are usually purchased by whoever is hosting the program – and, while they aren't haute cuisine, they often wind up being generally better than school lunch. This is important, because the reimbursement rate is the same.

    The main issue with summer lunch is that there aren't enough providers: anyone can host summer lunch anywhere that children gather, you just need to be in an area where 50% of the population meets the eligibility guidelines. Search "summer lunch" on the USDA website.

  3. One question-you say no questions asked on who can get the food, so can any child get a lunch? Including those not eligible for free and reduced lunch typically?

  4. I'm Food Service Director at a large urban school district who runs SFSP and I wanted to clear up some things …

    @ Michele — The reimbursement rate for summer program is higher than the regular school year. In the regular year it was $2.70 for severe need districts, but during the summer it is $2.94.

    @ Hilary — Yes, anyone of any status can get a breakfast and lunch as long as they are under 18.

    I'm a little concerned about anon post that teachers are eating the lunch — that is a big, BIG violation of the program. Meals are for children (ages 2-18) only. Adults, including parents and staff, are not allowed to consume the meals.

  5. Adults can purchase a lunch through the summer lunch program. A lunch for adults is 2.75 where I live.

  6. Why aren't parents providing a lunch for their kids? Why should my taxes pay for someone else's kid(s) lunch?

  7. @Anonymous — You are already paying taxes for the school lunch program! The food is not healthy and kids even throw it away. There are millions of families struggling to pay for basic needs and rely on the school to provide food for lunch.

  8. @Anon, good point! We should let all of these kids go hungry because their parents can't afford a meal.

    Hopefully my sarcasm and disdain were apparent…

  9. I agree becboo.

    The only thing worse than a family that has the nerve to be impoverished is a society that does what it takes to make sure no kid goes to bed hungry.


    Clearly whoever posted that has never seen the heartbreaking sight of a child starving to death and too young to do anything about it. I sincerely hope their family never knows such hardships. No one should.

  10. Ooops! I made a HUGE mistake in my initial post. Our teachers are NOT eating the SFSP lunches. The meals being served during the SFSP are similar to our school lunches and are prepared by the same cooks as school lunch. I miss understood the correlation and assumed they were eating them.

    I double checked today when another poster drew my attention to the mistake.

    So sorry for the confusion. I even know better than to assume things…

    I hope I didn't upset anyone or cast a negative light on this very very helpful program.

  11. Within a half mile of my house, there are 2 lunch sites that ran all summer long, and 2 more that ran part of the summer. (I live in a pretty poor neighborhood, obviously!) These programs really make a difference.

    As to the food they serve, it's a lot of processed meat and cheese on spongelike white bread, with chips and fruit or veg. Not great, but then, it's a whole lot better than going hungry. And my dog really enjoys rooting through the dropped scraps under the picnic tables in the park!

  12. I live in downstate, IL, and I'd never really paid attention, but I noticed a billboard advertising this program on my way home from work yesterday. It didn't mention the program by name, but I assume that is what it was referencing because it said something along the lines of, "School may be out for the summer, but a hot lunch is always in session." I would guess that it's provided by the local Boys and Girls Club.

  13. I used to manage a summer day camp program that took advantage of this program. Our programs were offered on a sliding fee scale, with about 90% of the participants on the lowest scale ($35/week, including all field trips and extended care) Working with this program to provide breakfasts and lunches that almost always included fresh fruits and veggies was a great help. Most of the parents were working parents, but could not afford full-time childcare for the summer. They qualified for free meals as well during the school year.

    The only downfall we saw, was that especially since the meals were brought to our site, or we picked them up to take on field trips, was that they sometimes got a bit repetitive (Peanut butter and jelly for EVERY field trip and one or two other times during the week) We also had to "teach" the kids how to eat some of the fruits – for example, whole kiwi were often served – which was a challenge since the only utensil we received was the dreaded plastic spork. I often packed a knife in my lunch so I could cut whatever fresh fruit was served since kids eat it better that way.
    In recent years, our local kitchen had stopped being able to provide substitutions for allergies. So we would try to keep alternatives on hand, or some of those parents would pack a lunch for their kids.

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