ELYRIA — When Cynthia West received an automated telephone call late Tuesday afternoon about the Summer Food Service Program sponsored by Elyria Schools, the mother of three made note of the time at nearby Franklin Elementary School.
From her home on Elyria’s 11th Street, West said she can see the neighborhood school — it is where her 10-year-old son and 5-year-old daughter attend classes — from her front door.
There, kids can eat lunch for free just after noon Monday through Friday.
West walked to the school Wednesday with five kids in tow just as a van wrapped with colorful images of fruits and vegetables pulled up. Courtney O’Dell and Colleen Dalton got out, slid open a side door and opened coolers full of lunches.
They handed each child a lunch consisting of a turkey sandwich, apple, broccoli florets with ranch dressing, a chocolate chip cookie and chocolate milk. The exchange was quick and easy with no questions to answer about residency, school attendance or household income.
“This is a great help,” said the 30-year-old who came with her three children, her goddaughter and a neighbor’s child. “It will not alleviate all the costs of feeding kids during the summer, but it’s a good meal for them. I know people know how it is when the summer is out. They are home and all they want to do is snack and eat.”
West said her food costs almost double in the summertime and, like most parents, she has to find a way to plan for the increase the best way she can. She buys in bulk, cooks more meals at home and plans her meals. Still, a free midday meal helps to curb those costs even more.
That’s one benefit of summer food programs.
Families can use the program for a quick meal for their children without paperwork, questions or preset income guidelines. This is unlike the free and reduced lunch program that is typical during the school year, which requires an income eligibility form families must update yearly.
So why on a 70-degree day did the Elyria Schools Food Service workers have such a hard time handing out the bagged lunches as they drove around the city?
Maybe because this is first time the district has added a food truck to its program in an effort to reach more kids.
Stops at Elyria’s South Park, Oakwood Elementary School, West Park and then Franklin Elementary School yielded few kids.
“We just have to get the word out more,” said Tera Fridley, the district’s food service director with Sodexo. “It’s early in the season. The program just started Monday, but we are going to do this because we want to feed more kids.”
The Department of Education’s program that is funded by the U.S. Department of Agriculture reimburses summer food providers at a higher rate than during the school year. The added revenue and new guidelines around distribution allowed the district to purchase the van and go mobile with their meals.
If the program picks up and is successful, the truck could begin serving hot lunches as well.
Amy Higgins, district spokeswoman, said participation has been an issue with the summer program, so the district is aiming to increase involvement. Going to places like South Park and West Park, where the city just opened new splash pads, is an attempt to find more kids.
Oakwood and Franklin offer bagged lunches because the buildings are not open during the summer, but Elyria High School is open and there families can find breakfast and a hot lunch, Higgins said.
“We feed a lot more kids there because the camps know they can come and the home day cares. We have Camp Invention at the high school right now and the athletes know they can eat if they are in school for conditioning,” Fridley said. “We are working on the neighborhood sites now.”
Last summer, Fridley said Elyria served about 21,000 meals over a 10-week period. It comes out to an average of less than 500 meals a day. This is in a district of roughly 6,400 students with a Food Service Department that serves more than 1.1 million breakfast and lunch meals during the school year.
The numbers show that fewer children are eating school-provided meals during the summer.
Going mobile seemed like the perfect solution.
“This is great for the community and great for the people who can’t feed their children on a regular basis like they want to during the summer,” Dalton said. “This will help with food costs.”
Julie Chase-Morefield, CEO of the Second Harvest Food Bank of North Central Ohio, said summer food programs work best when they strategically aim to hit where kids are engaged in activities. In Sandusky, the city’s Parks and Recreation Department schedules activities in the parks and offers lunch as an added incentive. Additionally, Lorain Public Library System does the same thing as it started a summer food program last year when director Anastasia Diamond-Ortiz was hired.
“It takes a while for kids to know to just come to the parks, but once they do the programs really do take off,” Chase-Morefield said.
Fridley said Elyria Schools is not the only summer food provider. University Hospitals Elyria Medical Center serves meals from its cafeteria to kids ages 1 to 18, the Elyria Parks and Recreation Department reaches kids through its Reach and Rise Discovery Camps, and the Lorain County Boys and Girls Clubs are lunch providers.
“Knowing that I can sleep at night because we are all working to feed kids,” Fridley said. “No child should go hungry.”
Still, the nonprofit that serves families and communities throughout Crawford, Erie, Huron and Lorain counties said there needs to be more accessible meal sites for kids and more partnership with programs and groups that already are working with kids.
“We know that just 10 percent of kids served by the free and reduced lunch program are fed through the summer food program,” Chase-Morefield said. “It’s a drop in the bucket.”