In 2019, Connecticut was second in the nation with 72.7 percent of 656 locations across the state serving two meals daily, part of the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Summer Food Service Program replacing lunch and breakfast programs when school is out of session. In total the program served $1.77 million worth of food to 37,816 children in Connecticut.
“I want to highlight this achievement as we have been making a big push for it across the state in the past few years,” said John Frassinelli, the bureau chief of Health, Nutrition, Family Services and Adult Education for the State Department of Education.
Nationally, just 52.7 percent of locations serving summer meals offered children two meals daily. Connecticut is also one of the only states to see an increase in the number of sites in 2019. Most states have seen a steady decline in available summer meal locations since peaking in 2016.
“There was a major federal push in the years preceding 2016 with summer meals, but since then there has been a national dip with the decline in publicity. The USDA holds a lot of weight in promoting the program,” Frassinelli said. “You need to get people to be aware that there is funding available and we are able to help them set up a site. In Connecticut, we have really dedicated staff that worked with sponsors to increase sites where sites are necessary.
Sponsors include school districts, town recreation departments and local nonprofits that offer to run the sites and receive reimbursement for every meal and snack served. In Connecticut just 63 sponsors operate all 656 locations, and the food is often cooked at a central location, like the district high school, and then distributed throughout the region.
Despite the increase, Connecticut still has fewer than the 708 sites serving food in 2016. Frassinelli said that in 2020, the hope is to change that, in part by targeting new locations in Stonington, Sprague and Griswold.
A matter of publicity
For the past several years the State Department of Education has partnered with End Hunger Connecticut in an effort to promote the dining locations in communities with historically low participation. The state provides the nonprofit with $19,000 to help publicize the summer meal program time and locations.
“We walk door to door and tell every resident in an eligible area about the program in what we call blitzs,” said Julieth Callejas, the vice president of End Hunger CT’s board of directors and a long-time volunteer with the organization. “We want every child to go because we know for some of these kids if they don’t go they don’t eat that day.”
Across the state the number of children receiving meals daily increased by 2 percent and the number of meals served increased by 6 percent compared to 2018, according to the State Department of Education.
Meals are made available in locations where children are likely to gather already, including parks, public pools and at town recreation camps. In addition to food, the sites also often host activities such as arts and crafts, games, and donated free books, Callejas said.
“We try to associate an event with the meal site so it is something constructive and positive in the summertime,” Callejas said. “Most of these children come on their own, by walking or on the bus. Their parents are at work during the day.”
A service gap
The 656 sites open in 2019 are located in areas where more than 50 percent of the student population is eligible for free or reduced school. In New London, where 81.7 percent of the students are eligible, there are 20 meal locations. Along the rest of the shoreline and Connecticut River Valley there are currently no locations serving meals.
“This year we are encouraging sponsors to look at opening additional sites in some of our more remote areas,” Frassinelli said. “In some of our towns where the school district or the town itself isn’t a sponsor already, a neighboring sponsor can move into these eligible areas.”
“Even if we are talking about just five or ten kids going to the site daily, that’s worth it to us,” he said.
An interactive map of meal locations can be found here