While Garden City stands as a model for summer meals programs in southwest Kansas, some counties lack opportunities for low-income kids to access meals during summer break.
Today is Summer Meals Day. Typically in June, participation in the program decreases, according to the Kansas Health Foundation. Today, the foundation is encouraging kids to eat at their nearest summer meal site and parents to come learn about what resources are available to them.
The program serves meals at 453 locations in Kansas by partnering with 137 sponsors. This summer, Kansas has 100 new feeding sites and 22 new sponsors all working toward the goal of serving 20 percent more meals than summer 2014. The state hopes to serve about 1.4 million meals.
For a USDA Summer Food Service Program location to operate, at least half of the children in a local school district must receive free or reduced meals during the school year.
Five area school districts, in which a majority of students are considered “economically disadvantaged” in their 2013-2014 reports to the Kansas Department of Education, currently do not have summer meals programs.
They include Lakin USD 215, Syracuse USD 494, Greeley County USD 200, Healy USD 468 and Copeland USD 476.
In Syracuse, where two of every three students qualify for free or reduced meals, Superintendent Kenneth Bridges attributed the lack of a program in his district to “a funding issue.”
“We don’t have enough kids, and we don’t have enough staff and personnel here,” Bridges said. “A summer meals program is one of those things that requires both.”
Garden City USD 457 sponsors 17 sites in Garden City and Holcomb. Nutrition Services Director Tracy Johnson said the district’s meals program served 6,713 more meals in June 2015 compared to June 2014, a nearly 66 percent increase.
In July 2014, Kansas fed summer meals to only seven out of 100 low-income Kansas children, according to the Food Research and Action Center. The only state that fed a smaller proportion of kids in the same period was Oklahoma, which fed 6.7 out of 100 low-income kids.
Cheryl Johnson, child nutrition and wellness director for the Department of Education, said, “We just have not yet found maybe a champion to work with the program to be able to offer the meals in every county in Kansas.”
“Our challenge in Kansas is we have many rural areas where it’s hard,” Johnson said. “In the school year, there are buses that bring children to our schools, but in the summer, you don’t have that transportation.”
Even though Copeland Public Schools meets the USDA requirements, there are no meal sites in Gray County. The school districts there direct parents to meal sites in Dodge City, according to the Cimarron-Ensign USD 102 central office.
Driving kids to meal sites was part of the strategy formed by western Kansas school administrators and representatives from nonprofits at the Kansas Summer Meals Summit in January.
They planned to find more sponsors, determine where kids congregate to bring the meals to them and consider applying for grants from the Kansas Department of Transportation.
“In Garden City, for example, their Meals on Wheels bus will take the meals out to the kids,” Johnson said. “We’re looking at creative ways in other communities to maybe expand that.”
In places without school-organized programs, a patchwork of churches, nonprofit organizations, recreational commissions and others are picking up the slack.
Out of its Scott City office, Compass Behavioral Health buses in and feeds kids from Greeley and Lane counties where there are no meals programs.
Compass works with First United Methodist Church in Scott City, Scott City Heartland Foods and local feedlots to provide meals to kids enrolled in the mental health center as part of their summer therapy program.
Kent Hill, regional director of the Compass office in Scott City, said some of the kids that come in to get meals do not regularly get breakfast at home.
“Some research and anecdotal data out there talks about the effect of malnutrition on children’s behavior,” Hill said. “Obviously, we know the effect on children’s physical health, but we can always tell when the kids get hungry because their behavior gets even worse.”
Kansas Food Bank joined the coalition last year and sponsors at least four sites in Ulysses, Johnson City and Leoti.