Ryan, Brady, Katlyn and Courtney Dillworth have a meal at Folley Pool in Chandler. The Chandler Unified School District hosts meals at 13 sites across the city, including some locations at city pools.

The beginning of summer is typically a time of celebration for children as school comes to an end and vacations, pool parties and camp fill the schedule. However, for youngsters who suffer from hunger, the end of the school year is much less joyous.

Arizona has one of the highest rates of food insecurity in the country, with one in four children facing food hunger everyday. For many of those children, the National School Lunch and School Breakfast Program in an invaluable resource

With 650,000 children participating in the National School Lunch Program, “it is a wonderful way to consistently feed children who need that source of nutrition to be in class, to learn, to thrive,” said Association of Arizona Food Banks CEO Angie Rodgers.

Around 78 percent of those children receive free or reduced-price lunch.

When school ends, so do those meals.

“If you take all of those meals out of the equation, kids struggle to get that source of care,” Rodgers said. “Kids rely on school to receive regular meals, and they struggle in summer.”

That is where the Summer Food Service Program comes in. It is a federally-funded program designed to give low-income children access to meals when school is out. The program is funded through the USDA and administered in Arizona by the Arizona Department of Education.

While some East Valley school districts run programs where youngsters regardless of where they live can drop by and have lunch, Kyrene has none.

Kyrene School District spokeswoman Nancy Dudenhoefer said Lomas Elementary School in Ahwatukee has a Title 1 lunch program for kids who were in kindergarten through fifth grade last school year. Kindergarten child also can eat at Lomas and Kyrene de los Ninos in Tempe through the Summer Feeding Program, she said.

The Department of Education regulates the program, conducts site visits, administers all required training for site sponsors, and ensures that all prospective sponsors meet eligibility and budget requirements.

There are over 1,000 sites where children can receive SFSP meals in Arizona, including many schools and Boys & Girls Club locations. However, site sponsors are making an effort to diversify their locations in order to go to where the kids are.

“We encourage sponsors to have activities at their sites,” said Kenny Barnes, Arizona Department of Education summer food program specialist. “That way, they can stay from breakfast through lunch, and it keeps them occupied” in a controlled, supervised environment, he said.

The Chandler Unified School District alone hosts 13 sites across the city, including some locations at city pools. The SFSP sites are set up outside of the pool gates so that children and parents do not have to pay a pool entrance fee in order to take advantage of the meal program.

The meals are free for children 18 years old and younger. Select locations also offer meals for adults for a nominal price that generally ranges between $2 and $4.

The meals served vary by site. Many sites serve breakfast, lunch and /or snacks and a few sites also offer dinner options. It is possible for families to eat three meals a day at SFSP sites, though they would have to travel to multiple locations since program regulations only allow a site to serve two meals per day.

In Arizona, SFSP-affiliated programs serve between 3.5 million to 4 million meals every year, though those numbers are dropping. By comparison, the lunch program provides roughly 13 million meals every month during the school year, Rodgers said.

In 2014, the program provided 4,046,104 meals, and in 2016 that number fell to 3,432,722, according to statistics provided by Arizona Department of Education.

Those numbers do not necessarily equate to falling demand, though. That is because actual demand during the summer likely far outpaces meals served under SFSP, Rodgers said.

That disconnect is caused by range of factors, including cumbersome regulations, access to meal service sites, summer heat and community awareness.

While there are over 1,000 sites serving meals across the state, they tend to cluster in urban areas and many children – especially in rural communities – have trouble accessing them.

Mesa, the East Valley’s largest city, has just under 50 SFSP locations. However, smaller cities and towns like Chandler (14 locations) and Gilbert (six locations) have far less, according to the interactive online map from Arizona Nutrition Network.

There are no SFSP sites in Ahwatukee, though there are nearby sites at Boys & Girls Club of the East Valley in Guadalupe and Wood Elementary School in Tempe.

Children and parents do not have to be residents of a city or town to take advantage of a site located there, though.

For instance, under a program called Snack on the Bus, 150 students from Gilbert are bused to a Chandler swimming pool that also features an SFSP site run by Chandler Unified School District where they eat breakfast and lunch. Then, on their way home, they stop at another SFSP site for a snack.

It’s a great way to keep the children fed throughout most of the day and also makes sense logistically, Audri Knutson, supervisor for Chandler Unified School District’s Food Services Department.

In many cases, children and their parents still must brave the heat of the Arizona summer to receive meals, and they must eat those meals at the location rather than take them home due to program regulations. Transportation to and from SFSP locations, many of which are schools, is difficult for many low-income families in the summer when there is no school bus in service, Rodgers said.

“Here in the metro area (a major issue is) just the heat,” Barnes said. “When it gets 110 or 115 degrees outside it is hard to get children to come down.”

One recent food trend in the Phoenix metro may hold the solution to that problem – food trucks. Chandler Unified School District is currently awaiting the arrival of its own food truck thanks to a donation from the Arizona Diamondbacks and a partnership with Aeromark. The food truck will be ready for service by next summer.

In order to comply with the USDA regulations that require food be consumed on site, the food truck will bring tables for children to use.

This type of creativity and hard work is part and parcel of the dedicated public servants and volunteers who navigate the various regulations and logistical challenges involved in the program to feed hungry children, organizers say.

“Whatever twists and turns come up, we will prevail,” said Patti Narducci, food and nutrition supervisor for Chandler Unified School District.

The Summer Food Service Program also suffers a publicity problem. In many cases, children cannot take advantage of the program because their families simply do not know about it.

Association of Arizona Food Banks, Arizona Department of Education and other interested groups are working to reverse that trend by investing in social media marketing. Department of Education also partners with St. Mary’s Food Bank, Dairy Council of Arizona and Arizona Nutrition Network to create public service announcements and other promotional materials.

Chandler Unified promotes the program on school and district websites and also sends information home with students.

– Reach Wayne Schutsky at 480-898-6533 or wschutsky@timespublications.com.

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