Special Blog Post By: Zia MacWilliams, Manager of Federal Children’s Nutrition Programs

A Big Lift site in San Mateo County

The Summer Meals Program, a federally funded initiative providing free, nutritious meals for any child under 18 years of age, has seen increased success when implemented with summer programming. The Big Lift Inspiring Summers Program is, as indicated in its title, an inspiring example of the effectiveness programming paired with free meals when families need assistance most—during the summer.

Collaboration with Second Harvest Food Bank ensures that breakfast, lunch, and snacks are provided to program “scholars” during their summer session.  A free five-week program, the Big Lift is structured specifically to address the opportunity gap—summer learning loss impacted by the prevalence of higher income children attending quality preschool, while others from lower income families are unable to attend due to prohibitive program costs.

Currently, 50% of San Mateo County’s children are not able to read with a third grade proficiency when they reach the third grade, which disproportionately impacts children of color (around 73%). The Big Lift aims to close this gap in San Mateo County and improve literacy for third graders by 2020 through the utilization of innovative programming, public and private partnerships, and an emphasis on caregiver engagement to “lift up and improve the life trajectories for kids living all over the county.”

This year, there were 1,300 children enrolled, extending benefits to communities in seven high-need school districts in San Mateo County. Some of the positive impacts included: summer learning loss mitigation; distribution of free educational materials to scholars and families; education for teachers about the latest research and use of tools to support STEM skills, Growth Mindset, Social-Emotional Learning; family engagement for college readiness; and the return of college-aged students to local communities as program support coordinators.

Additionally, in partnership with the San Mateo County Health and Human Services, we were able to fund adult meals at 12 sites in 2017 and 2018. In the summer of 2017, over 6,868 meals were provided to adults at Big Lift sites, with over 148,000 children partaking in the Summer Meals Program. Recognizing the importance of providing meals for adults, we continued the adult meal program this summer. An administrator said, “Providing adult meals is an extremely impactful part of this program. We aren’t only providing adults something to eat, but also a bit of dignity. Our volunteers wouldn’t be part of this program if we had to turn hungry family members away.”

Sitting at the closing ceremony for the Big Lift summer 2018, one is immediately struck by the sense of pride in the crowded auditorium. Children with brightly colored Hawaiian leis blanket the gymnasium floor, and above them is a brightly painted mural with a quote by Susan B Anthony: “Failure is impossible.” Feeling and seeing the love in the room, it is certain that failure is impossible for the group of scholars and their dedicated families. And so far, the numbers show that literacy instruction in the mornings and experiential learning in science, art, technology, and math in the afternoons work. According to the 2017 Summer Impact Report, Big Lift scholars have an average of 1.5 months reading gain, with 88% of parents reporting they became more involved in their children’s education.