A weekend interview about summer school meal programs with Gray Miller, Pinellas food services director
Most parents know that the National School Lunch Program provides free and reduced-price meals for children during the school year. What many don’t know is that the U.S. Department of Agriculture also provides a meal program during the summer. The same children who are entitled to breakfast and lunch when school is in session are entitled to meals throughout the summer months as well. Times education reporter Donna Winchester spoke with Gray Miller, director of food services for Pinellas County Schools, to learn more about the program.
How does the Summer Food Service Program work?
The program provides meals for children who need them during the time when school is out of session. Summer is a pretty long time if you’re having financial issues. In that regard, the program offers a stop gap between the end of one school year and the beginning of another, offering breakfast and lunch, and perhaps an afternoon snack.
This takes place in all 50 states. The program has different sponsors, who report to the state, which in turn works under the auspices of the USDA. Locally, the Pinellas County Department of Health and Human Services is one sponsor. The county offers meals at more than 50 sites, including rec centers, churches, and various places that have summer programs for children. The Pinellas school district is another sponsor. The district provides meals at 11 schools that are offering summer programs for the children who attend them, but the program is also open for children in the neighborhood.
So any child can come to one of the school sites and get breakfast or lunch, depending on what’s offered there?
Yes, any child up to age 18.
What do children need to do to get the meals? Do they need to show identification? Do they need to be accompanied by an adult?
We would certainly expect small children to be accompanied by an adult for safety reasons, but they do not have to come with an adult. They do not have to present any kind of ID or anything. They just come.
What role does the school district play in this effort to provide meals?
Pinellas County food services plays two roles during the summer. One is that we act as a sponsor for the summer food program. We’re sponsoring the programs that are in the 11 schools. We also act as a vendor for the program the county sponsors. We prepare the meals that are offered in the schools, but also the meals that are offered in the other sites throughout the county. We bring on a very small staff of 10-month employees and extend their time for additional duty during the summer. We’ve done that for the past seven or eight years.
How many meals does the district provide each day and where are they prepared?
We prepare between 3,000 and 3,500 meals in the cafeteria at Dixie Hollins High School.
And what do the meals consist of?
We prepare cold, prepackaged meals that meet the USDA’s nutritional requirements. The lunches include a sandwich, a fruit, a juice, a milk, and on some days, a cookie or some other treat. We follow the same nutrition guidelines we follow during the school year.
According to the Food Research and Action Center, more than 900,000 Florida children in prekindergarten through high school eat free or discounted meals during the school year but fewer than 160,000 take advantage of free meals during the summer. Why do you think that’s the case?
One of the things we think might be happening is that children lack a means of getting to the sites. School buses take them to their schools during the year, but there is no district transportation to get them to the school during the summer. A lot of parents don’t know the meal program is available for their children. They don’t know the opportunity exists to flesh out their child’s nutrition over the summer if they would only find out the nearest site and take advantage of it. In this economic downturn, we anticipated participation to skyrocket. That has not been the case. We’re sort of baffled.
For more information about the Summer Food Service Program in Pinellas County schools, call (727) 547-7155. To learn about sites sponsored by the Pinellas County Department of Health and Human Services, call (727) 464-8439 or visit http://www.pinellascounty.org/humanservices/pdf/summer_food_sites.pdf.