School’s out and summer is upon us. Most students are excited to head out on hiking trips and fishing as the weather warms, without the confines of the school day. However, school holds some basic affordances for students that summer does not. Area schools provide breakfast, lunch and sometimes a mid-day snack for students. So for some, summer can be an uncertain time, as they aren’t sure where meals will come from. Fortunately, Oregon Department of Education (ODE) and the United States Department of Agriculture team up with school districts and local agencies to ensure families won’t have to worry.
Each district in the area hosts Summer Food Service Program (SFSP) sites that target neighborhoods with high populations of children, as well as looking at income data to ensure easy access for high need families. According to ODE, 53% of students in Clatsop County were eligible for free or reduced lunch during the 17-18 school year, however, any student under 18, regardless of status, has access to free meals in the summer.
“The program is important because there are so many children that do not have access to nutritious food except for what is served at school, “ Astoria School District’s Food Service Director Mike Kelly explains. “When the summer break starts, their access would end if it weren’t for the Summer Feeding Program.” Astoria hosts four sites, serving around 100 elementary and middle school-aged students a day between them. “I am surprised by how few families take advantage of the program,” Mike says, citing the nearly 2,000 students attending Astoria schools, with about half receiving food assistance during the school year. “We are only serving a small percentage of the kids in Astoria and it’s totally free.” The community may be able to help in changing this statistic, however. Mike recommends increasing activity around the sites at lunchtime to spread awareness and get students outside with other kids. In addition, sites are coordinated around high youth populations, but these demographics are always changing. If there is a better location for the feeding sites to be set up, Mike says, they are open to change in order to beef up attendance.
Sites are available across the city and in surrounding cities as well. Jewell, Seaside, Warrenton and Knappa all serve lunch for students during the summer months through the SFSP. Most Clatsop County districts free and reduced lunch percentages hover around half of the student body, aside from Seaside, who supports over 60% of its district with meal costs. Clatsop County mimics Oregon percentages statewide, which overall fall at 50.9% according to the Oregon Statewide Report Card.
This demographic, however, is not the only group welcome at summer feeding sites. Stephanie Davis, Warrenton-Hammond School District’s Food Service Supervisor, says she wishes more students would take advantage of the program, whether it is a necessity due to family income or not. Davis explains that the purpose of the program is three-fold; students get a nutritious lunch, to socialize with peers, and get exercise as many attendees walk to lunch. Warrenton hosts two sites where play is easily incorporated as well. Warrenton Grade School has a playground accessible to diners, and the old Hammond Library location features a slide and climbing rope.
Karly Stoddard, a local mother of two, brought her children to the Warrenton Grade School site for the first time along with her niece and nephew. “My son is going into preschool,” she explained. “I want him to get to know the school, for a good transition.” She also notes that even though her family doesn’t need the free lunch, it’s a nice chance to socialize and integrate into the community. Local districts are happy to see any and all families taking advantage of the program.
All around the lunchroom, students are pulling out their cheeseburgers, pouring ranch for their broccoli and digging into their blueberries. The lunch always includes a fruit, vegetable, entree, milk and a snack. Today’s blueberries are an obvious favorite, as can be seen by the purple fingers and cheeks at each table, and Davis says that’s usually the case in the summertime. Because of the season, melons, grapes, and fresh berries are available. The menu is available via Warrenton’s district site and Davis says parents are thankful for that. “If their kids are picky, they want to be sure it’s something they’ll eat,” she says, but then the possibilities are endless. No matter where students reside, they can attend any of the sites for lunch. Davis says this is an untapped resource that we need to make our community aware of, “It’s getting people to come see the site during lunch, to play after, run groups, make it a meeting place,” she says. Take the kids to Tapiola Park in Astoria one day, then out to Ft Stevens another and stop by a Warrenton site. There is no check-in, sign up or restrictions. Any kid under eighteen eats free.