Healthy meals when school lets out for summer

By Hayley Simmons

The last thing most Mainers are thinking of with snow on the ground is summer. For Gail Lombardi, Program Manager of the Summer Food Service Program at the Maine Department of Education, however, the next few months will be focused on recruiting sponsors dedicated to feeding children when school lets out for the summer. The Summer Food Service Program, run by the Maine Department of Education, provides kids receiving free or reduced-price breakfast and lunch during the school year with nutritious meals during the long summer months.

Gail Lombardi
Gail Lombardi

Lombardi sat down recently to discuss the Summer Food Service Program.

Hayley Simmons: What makes for an effective summer food program?

Gail Lombardi: The meal sites that have the highest participation rates also have activities for the children. So, they’re not just running down to get a meal and then going back to their apartment or home, but they have something else to do. Many of our sponsors work with the recreation programs, the (YMCA’s), and some of our meal programs bring in different speakers.

HS: What sorts of (health effects) have you noticed in kids that aren’t receiving the food they need?

GL: Research shows that children who participate in the Summer Food Service Program lose less of their learning over the summer than their peers who do not participate. In the summer when there are no (school) meals, families are stretching those food budgets and may not be offering as healthy choices because of the budget. So when families can get one or two meals through the summer food service program they then extend that budget to provide healthier dinner meals.

HS: What challenges are you facing in finding sponsors?

GL: The challenges are twofold: one is getting people to be thinking about summer when there’s snow on the ground, so that they have adequate planning time. When they’re coming into the summer program they say, well, where are the children in our community? What are the activities they are participating in? Who are our partners to make sure that we’re reaching as many of our income-eligible children as possible, and how do we advertise that and promote it out to the community? We do have some partners right now, which has been fabulous. We had the Maine Hunger Initiative who worked with us last year. I’m working up in the Bangor, Orono area with some potential new sponsors. (Another staff member is doing similar work in the Midcoast area.)

HS: Is it difficult to find sites for the program?

GL: Well, we can identify here, at the state level, some general areas that are eligible for the meal sites, but we don’t know here sitting in Augusta where children gather, so we might look and say there’s a great little park over there, but then we may find on the local level the children do not go to that park for safety reasons, or it’s too far of a walk. So that’s where having our local partners come together in these planning sessions with potential new sponsors helps bring people to the table that would answer those questions, and really identify play spots.

HS: How can federal regulations pose a challenge in operating summer food service programs?

GL: The federal regulations are there to assure that the meals are getting to the right children and that federal funds are spent wisely. I know in Maine we have really simplified the processes for our sponsors. Their first year is the most intense, because they have to have all their planning in place, and input into our computer software system all of the data. Then they have to think about, what’s our budget going to be? They have to provide a start and end date for the meal sites and an estimate of how many children they think they’ll serve there. So, in year two, all of their meal sites used in year one are prepopulated with all that data and then all they have to do is go in and change things (if needed).

HS: What outreach methods are the most successful in getting kids to participate in the Summer Food Service Program?

GL: More than one. It’s that word of mouth that helps bring other children. It’s putting posters up, getting your grocery store to put fliers into the grocery bags, doing cable TV with little announcements, put them on the back of menus that go out to schools at the end of the school year. It takes people a while to build the trust and to come. So one of the efforts is to link with organizations already doing activities with children, so people already have that trust and relationship built.

Interested in sponsoring a Summer Food Service Program in your community? Contact Gail Lombardi by phone at 207-624-6843 or by email at gail.lombardi@maine.gov. Visit the Maine DOE’s Summer Food Service Program web page.

Hayley Simmons is a junior at Falmouth High School.