Despite need among local families, Fuel Up 4 Summer reports attendance slump at Lawrence meal sites
photo by: Joanna Hlavacek
When school ends, kids go on summer vacation. But hunger, and the need for nutritional meals year-round, doesn’t take any breaks.
Despite this persistent demand, attendance at Lawrence’s Fuel Up 4 Summer meal sites has been in decline over the last three years, says Michelle Heller, a SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program) and nutrition educator with the K-State Research and Extension-Douglas County office.
Fuel Up 4 Summer, a localized branding of the national Summer Food Service Program, provides free meals for kids ages 1 to 18 through the summer months, when students lose access to school breakfasts and lunches. The program operates out of several sites across the city, serving thousands of meals to kids of varying income levels each summer.
But participation in the program has declined in recent years, falling from 49,862 meals served in 2015 to 45,392 meals served in 2016. The following year, that number dropped to 40,655 — and that’s with the addition of a dinner site to the existing breakfast and lunch spots.
“There are still people who aren’t aware of the program, and we want to fix that,” Heller says.
Program organizers have attempted to analyze the dip in participation over the years, Heller says, but haven’t been able to “pinpoint” any significant causes. School construction after the Lawrence district’s 2013 bond issue temporarily closed meal sites at some schools, she says, but mostly the problem seems to be a lack of awareness.
That’s a concern to Heller, who worries about children missing out nutritionally during the summer months. Between 16 and 17 percent of Douglas County families experience food insecurity throughout the year, she says, so there’s clearly a demand for the program.
“In the summer, I would assume that would go up, because many of these families are not getting their breakfast and lunch at the school, so their food dollars now have to cover meals that the kids were getting at school,” Heller says of the extra burden on parents over the summer.
“We know that good nutrition over the summer is linked to better academic readiness in August, just in regular growth and development, and that overall security that children need,” she added. “As a teacher, I can see that.”
Several local agencies are involved with this year’s Fuel Up 4 Summer, which relies on Lawrence Public Schools’ food service department to prepare and serve the meals. There are 11 meal locations this summer — Lawrence has 10, and Lecompton United Methodist Church hosts lunch Tuesdays and Fridays starting June 5. Some sites serve lunch only, and others serve breakfast and lunch. The Lawrence-Douglas County Housing Authority hosts the program’s only dinner site Mondays through Thursdays starting June 4.
Kids eat for free, and adults can purchase breakfasts for $2.30 and lunches for $3.85.
The Douglas County Extension office and its partners are trying to spread the word this summer through increased social media activity and communications with PTOs and other community groups, Heller says.
One new feature this summer is an inflatable obstacle course that will travel to a different meal site each week. Kids and their families can play on the course during the 30 minutes before and after lunch at various locations every Wednesday, balancing the program’s healthy meals with physical activity.
Program organizers are also highlighting Lawrence Transit’s student semester bus pass, which offers kids in grades K-12 unlimited rides May through August (there are also passes available during fall and spring) for $10 per student.
“We are especially concerned as well for the kids who are too old to go to the sitter or a program but too young to drive,” Heller says. “We want to make sure those teens have a place to go, be social and have a meal.”
Heller stresses that kids do not need to be enrolled in Boys and Girls Club or Lawrence Parks and Recreation Department programming to access meals at those sites.
Fuel Up 4 Summer is open to all kids between the ages of 1 and 18, no questions asked. There is no registration, proof of income or age, or meal tickets required.