After 2013 expansion, summer food program to get bigger push

After 2013 expansion, summer food program to get bigger push

PAWTUCKET - The hunger pangs don't go away when school is out, say those who run Pawtucket's school food program, and not nearly enough students are taking advantage of the sustenance available to them during the warmer months.

After adding two sites to reach a larger percentage of the city's children in the summer of 2013, advocates say they want to put a greater effort into advertising the availability of the U.S. Department of Agriculture Summer Food Service Program in 2014. The program will launch its fifth summer season at the end of the month.

Solange Morrissette, general manager of school services for food service provider Sodexo, said the fifth year of the summer food program will feature an aggressive publicity campaign to hopefully get more local young people eating than ever before.

Last summer Sodexo averaged about 1,500 meals a day for the 22 days of service in July. August numbers were lower after programs ended. All told, workers served 37,000 lunches and 19,000 breakfasts during the summer of 2013.

The greatest barrier to getting more children eating is a lack of knowledge about the food available, said Morrissette, which is why there's such a need for a bigger public information campaign this year.

Pawtucket food service workers are taking a page out of the Healthy Communities Office run by Providence Mayor Angel Taveras, which has done an extensive amount of marketing of the summer food program in the capital city.

A banner is set to go up on the walkway over Newport Avenue and fliers will be sent home with each child offering details on at least 22 food sites - and as many as 24 sites - available in the city.

"For the kids who have a need for meals, we want to let them know they're here and available to keep them healthy all summer," said Morrissette.

Morrissette said she's considering two possible new food sites for the 2014 summer, one at a church near Nathanael Greene Elementary School and another at the Department of Human Services office on Roosevelt Avenue.

School and food service workers emphasize that the summer lunch program is important because statistics show that the students who need food the most aren't getting enough during the summer. Morrissette pointed out as evidence the fact that 10.5 million meals a day were served to students who were eligible for free and reduced meals during the 2010 school year. That number plummeted to just 3.1 million meals a day during the summertime, according to federal statistics.

In 2013, Pawtucket's summer food program was expanded to both the Pawtucket Public Library and the Veterans Park pool behind Nathanael Greene Elementary off Smithfield Avenue.

A food kiosk at the pool was one of several "new and creative" ways to get more children eating lunch, Morrissette told The Breeze last year, filling an "incredible need" for children who play all day "with nothing to eat."

Between 35 and 50 students were served on a regular basis last year at the Pawtucket Library, said Morrissette. The side effect was that the library saw a significant increase in the number of students participating in its summer reading program. In 2012, with no lunches, there were 279 registered readers in the Dream Big Read program, compared with 520 registered readers in 2013. The total number of hours read jumped from 1,284 in 2012 to 15,454 in 2013, and total summer program attendance more than doubled, from 371 in 2012 to 766 in 2013.

The program at the city pool was also "really successful," said Morrissette. Because lunch was served, leaders of the Pawtucket Child Opportunity Zone started running field trips there. The numbers after the field trips started jumped from about 75-80 students a day to about 150-175 students a day eating meals, she said.

Food service workers are planning this year's summer lunch program kickoff for June 30 at Slater Memorial Park. State and federal officials will join in for a day of celebration to raise awareness about the program. There will be plenty of fun and physical activities, a healthy meal served, and a program of speakers, said Morrissette.

The summer food program is all about letting children who are in "food-insecure households" know that they don't have to go hungry, according to Morrissette. Across Rhode Island, she said, more than 50,000 children receive free or reduced-price lunch during the school year, but only about one-tenth of those access the summer program.