Special Blog Post By: Alisa Tantraphol, Second Harvest Food Bank Associate Director of Strategic Partnerships

A Strong Public-Private Collaborative Works Towards a Hunger-Free Summer

Imagine trying to make ends meet for your family on less than $45,000 per year here in the heart of Silicon Valley. According to the Insight Center for Community Economic Development, that’s about half of what it takes for a family with two young children to be self-sufficient in this region. Yet that’s the reality for the parents of over 140,000 local kids.

During the school year, many of these kids receive free or subsidized meals through the federal free/reduced-price meal program. (Lunches are free for kids living in families earning less than $31,525 per year and subsidized for families of four living on less than $44,863 per year.) Here in Santa Clara and San Mateo counties, a staggering 1 in 3 children qualify for this program.

The summer version of this federal student meal program is called the Summer Food Service Program (SFSP). But with school budget cuts leading to fewer summer school opportunities in our community, fewer local kids have access to this support during the summer months. A 2014 Stanford study confirmed that summer is the hardest time for local families struggling to put food on the table because they lose access to these critical meals.

In recent years, the YMCA of Silicon Valley has stepped up to sponsor SFSP and trained public library staff on meeting the federal requirements for participating in SFSP. Libraries are a welcoming place for children and offer educational and enrichment activities at locations convenient for families. Reimbursements from SFSP ensure that students have the fuel their bodies need to take advantage of these programs, which can help low-income students enter the new school year at less of a disadvantage to their more affluent peers who spend their summers immersed in stimulating learning environments.

However, because of federal stipulations, SFSP meals can only be provided to children under 18. That meant that library staff often had to turn away parents who were obviously hungry—leaving children feeling guilty about having a meal when they knew their parents were hungry. Staff felt uncomfortable telling parents they couldn’t eat or even share their child’s meal, but had no alternative.

Building on this summertime enrichment model with meals for kids, this past summer, a public-private collaborative worked towards a hunger-free summer for everyone:

  • The YMCA sponsored the federal SFSP program to fund meals for kids at 25 sites throughout the community. Sites included libraries in both Santa Clara and San Mateo counties as well as YMCA locations in low-income areas. The food was prepared by Revolution Foods, whose mission is to create healthy, fresh, real food for schools and families (with no artificial flavors or preservatives or anything fake).
  • Educational and enrichment activities were provided at the summer meal sites. This is especially important because kids experience learning losses when they don’t engage in educational activities during the summer; according to the National Summer Learning Association, more than half of the achievement gap between lower- and higher-income youth can be explained by unequal access to summer learning opportunities.
  • Second Harvest provided meals for adults (funded in part by a grant from the ConAgra Foods Foundation), and student attendance at the summer meal sites increased as a result. With Revolution Foods’ focus on real foods like whole grains and fresh produce, it was helpful to have parents there to encourage their kids to try new, healthy foods — and to begin to establish a life-long habit of healthy eating.
  • Second Harvest supplemented these hot meals by distributing free groceries to families at a pop-up pantry in the Ravenswood City School District in East Palo Alto two Saturday mornings each month. Families received 90 pounds of fresh produce, rice, beans, chicken, milk, cereal, ground turkey, eggs, canned fruits and vegetables, peanut butter, tortillas, and other groceries each month. Thanks to the support of the David & Lucile Packard Foundation, we will be able to continue providing free groceries during the school year for local families in need of food through this school pantry.
  • As one parent whose child participated in the summer meal program commented, “The food has been such a big help to my family. It’s healthy and my children enjoy the food.” Another was so appreciative, her only suggestion was, “I wish this was done year-round.”

    The impact of the Lunch at the Library program this past summer was significant – over 275,000 meals in all for local families in need: 143,628 meals were provided across 25 summer meal program sites—132,392 hot meals for kids (serving an average of 5,822 children every day during the 10 week summer program) and 10,984 meals for adults; and enough groceries to make 132,637 meals thanks to the pop-up school pantry distributions. We also conducted outreach to connect these families with other community resources beyond the summer months. A flyer listing every local food resource was distributed to every student in the district.

    The Pediatric Advocacy Program at the Stanford School of Medicine conducted a study that validated program assumptions, namely that the program model made it easy for people to participate in the program, compared to accessing other food assistance programs such as CalFresh (food stamps); while over 40% of program participants surveyed had experienced food insecurity in the past year, two-thirds of respondents were not aware of food assistance programs. The Stanford study also noted that adding in the adult meal component helped foster a sense of community among participants.

    For low-income families and individuals who are not connected to other support systems and resources, the Lunch at the Library program has become a trusted source of enrichment, food, and information about other community resources available to address food insecurity. This pilot underscores the potential power of strong public-private collaborative efforts working towards the shared vision of a hunger-free summer for everyone. Our hope is to expand to additional sites with the support of additional collaborators in 2016.