Getting kids to eat healthy food has never been an easy task. That job is even tougher during summer break — particularly for families whose children rely on meals served up in school lunchrooms.
And while a chicken filet on a whole-grain bun with a side of cucumber slices may not wow a foodie, it may be tasty enough to help feed thousands of area children during the second year of a free meals program coordinated by Buncombe County Schools.
Slated to run from June 17 to Aug. 9, the program will offer free breakfasts, lunches and snacks at more than 35 sites across Buncombe County and the city of Asheville to any and all local children age 18 and under. But it aims to serve those most in need.
“Children who rely on reduced meals during the schools year may not have access to nutritious foods in the summer. That’s a pretty big gap in the year,” said Program Coordinator Mary Andreae, a Buncombe County Schools child nutrition supervisor.
Last summer — the effort’s first year in Buncombe County — organizers served more than 53,300 meals to approximately 5,000 area children. But officials anticipate an increase in demand, and Andreae said they are so far planning to prepare around 80,000 meals this summer.
The free meals program is part of the nationwide Summer Food Service Program, which is administered and funded by the U.S. Department of Agriculture and operated locally by approved sponsors such as school districts, camps or private nonprofit organizations. All meals meet set USDA guidelines; an example of a typical lunch may be a ham and cheese roll-up with sweet potato fries and milk. Andreae said they always add a fruit or vegetable, including some local and regional produce.
Last year, a variety of federal and local sources paid for the program. The USDA reimburses the school system’s costs through the N.C. Division of Health and Human Service at a predetermined per-meal rate. Last year, the USDA reimbursed nearly $141,000 in the school system’s costs, with the Eblen Foundation contributing about $200 for additional start-up expenses. By summer’s end, the program broke even, and the school system didn’t have to otherwise chip in to pay for the effort.
Which Buncombe children qualify? All of them.
The program may focus most on those children who qualify for free and reduced meals during the school year, but it won’t require any child to register or to present identification or proof of income to get a free meal at a participating site, which includes three to be opened in the city by Asheville City Schools. All children who receive the meals must eat them on-site.
Andreae said meal sites — such as at Woodridge Apartments in the Emma neighborhood of Asheville — were located in areas with an established need and that attracted the greatest participation last year.
“We’ve tried to link to schools with higher rates of students that qualify for free and reduced meals during the school year,” she said. “The need is the same, but this year we are able to get into areas that we didn’t have access to last year.”
In 2013, 55.6 percent of Buncombe County children participated in the free and reduced-price meals program during the school year, according to Andreae. That is a small increase from the year before, when 55.1 percent participated. According to USDA guidelines effective July 1, a family of four must earn less than $43,568 a year to qualify for reduced-price meals. A family of four earning less than $30,615 qualifies for free meals during the school year.
While some of the sites — such as at the county pools or at Asheville’s Deaverview Apartments — will distribute meals to any child in the community, most require children to be enrolled in a program, such as in a camp or a middle school bridge program, at that location.
Andreae said that more “open” sites are needed, but finding volunteers to help staff them is a challenge. Last year, some of those locations had relatively low participation rates, ones the school system said reflected problems — such as transportation — some children may have in getting to the meal sites.
“We want to be at places where children congregate,” she said.
But, she added, providing food assistance to families that struggle to provide healthy foods could make children less likely to fall behind academically.
“Research supports that adequate nutrition and success in school are correlated,” she said. “A child who doesn’t get enough nutrients enters school at the end of the summer at a disadvantage.”
— Jack Igelman is a contributing reporter to Carolina Public Press, a nonprofit online news service providing Western North Carolina with unbiased, in-depth and investigative reporting as well as educational opportunities to journalists, students and others.
Find this report and more at www.carolinapublicpress.org.