Photo of a sack lunch containing milk, ranch dressing, baby carrots, apples, and juice.

Free Lunches for Youth All Summer Long at Schools and Community Centers

by Ben Adlin

At locations across South Seattle and much of the rest of the state this summer, schools and community groups will provide free lunches for young people regardless of their ability to pay. Some sites will offer lunches on all weekdays, while others will have seven-day meal packs available for pickup on a weekly basis.

Lunches will be available to anyone 18 and under, whether or not they’re enrolled at that school. Parents and guardians may also pick up meals on behalf of their children.

The service is part of an expanded federal program that typically provides lunches only in areas where more than half of students qualify for free or reduced-price meals. During the pandemic, the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) opened eligibility to all areas.

“USDA has said anybody can operate a summer site. You don’t have to qualify with this 50% or more needy children,” said Leanne Eko, director of child nutrition services at the Washington Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction (OSPI), which oversees the program in the state. 

Most meal distribution sites are run by schools, “but we also have private nonprofit organizations, some Indian tribes, some city and county governments, college and university programs, and some camps,” Eko said.

In South Seattle, the expansion means even more meal distribution sites will be operating this summer than have been open during the school year.

“We’re actually opening up more sites in South Seattle than we have open currently,” said Adam Smith, nutrition services director at Seattle Public Schools. Not only will more of the district’s schools offer meal pick-ups, but thanks to a partnership with the City of Seattle, so will YMCAs, Boys & Girls Clubs, libraries, and some childcare centers. “And we’re currently talking to some of the local churches in South Seattle to do meal distribution there.”

Smith directed Seattle-area families to the district’s summer meal service website for more information, including school pickup locations. There’s even a sample menu, although the district says the selection sometimes varies. 

Most Seattle schools will be open for meal pickups from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m.

Typically, the district offers four selections that rotate daily: a sandwich, a salad, a take-and-bake option, and — at about two dozen sites — hot prepared food such as pizza or burritos. Milk is offered with every meal, and at some locations the district will also provide boxes of fresh fruit and vegetables.

Due to social distancing guidelines, youth and families must eat the meals off-site.

Some dietary restrictions can be accommodated, but not all. “We always try to have a vegetarian option every day,” Smith said. “We try to accommodate things like halal, but it’s very difficult sometimes with our suppliers.” 

Families of young people with medical or specific dietary needs should go to a nearby site and let supervisors know, he added. Often special meals can be made to accommodate those needs, but they need to be prepared in advance at a central kitchen. If getting to a site is an obstacle, a family can arrange to pick up seven-day meal kits once a week.

“Each site is structured a little different based on the needs of that community,” Smith said.

Seattle Public Schools currently distributes food to 41 sites, serving about 20,000 students per day, according to Smith. As the summer meal program kicks off on Monday, June 21, the number of sites is expected to expand to 86.

Other school districts kick off their meal programs later this summer.

Highline School District will launch its summer service beginning the week of June 28, with seven-day meal kits available at rotating locations on Mondays, Tuesdays, Wednesdays, and Thursdays. The district is asking families to preorder meals online to ensure there’s enough food to meet demand.

Auburn School District begins its summer food service program on June 30 and will offer weekday breakfasts and lunches together from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. at most participating schools. Meals will also be served at community centers and van stop routes around the region.

Renton School District’s summer meal service will offer seven-day lunch kits for pickup on Wednesdays at schools and some apartment complexes around the district beginning at some locations on June 30. Order forms are available online.

Tukwila School District and most other districts around Puget Sound will also offer summer meals.

A nationwide map of meal locations is available in English and Spanish on USDA’s website, although Eko at OSPI said that information is still being updated to reflect local details of the summer meals program. Participating groups were required to submit that information to the state agency earlier this month.

Eko said families cancould text “FOOD” to 877-877 for more information. Sites can also be found through USDA by texting “Summer Meals” to 97779 or by calling 1-866-3-HUNGRY (or 1-877-8-HAMBRE for service in Spanish).

While individual sites can set their own schedules, most offer meals from late June through late August. A variety of other school nutrition programs operate throughout the year.

“The reality is that families that are food insecure rely on school meals during the school year,” said Eko. “So during the summer months, when those meals are unavailable, that’s certainly a hardship and a change for them.”

As a registered dietician, she said she sees good nutrition as a key part of supporting healthy development and better educational outcomes: “It makes sense to me that if we want them to ‘book learn,’ then we have to make sure that their basic needs are take care of, and that includes making sure that they’re not hungry.”

She’s also pleased that all communities are eligible for the summer meals program this year, noting that many students at wealthier schools face food insecurity, even if those areas don’t typically qualify for federal aid.

The change has helped fuel calls to make a more permanent change and offer free meals to all students throughout the school year, Eko said. “There’s an incredible amount of paperwork that goes into this determination of what category a child falls into during the school year. So if we just fed everybody, we’d have a cost savings administratively that could offset the additional cost of feeding more children.”

Ben Adlin is a reporter and editor who grew up in the Pacific Northwest and currently lives on Capitol Hill. He’s covered politics and legal affairs from Seattle and Los Angeles for the past decade and has been an Emerald contributor since May 2020, writing about community and municipal news. Find him on Twitter at @badlin.

📸 Featured Image: USDA Photo by Lance Cheung via Wikimedia Commons. Image is in the public domain.

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