For many of the 20 million children qualifying for free-and-reduced lunches, school is the only place they get to eat. Research shows 60% of low-income students report going to school on an empty stomach, and it gets worse during the summer when many of them no longer have the school food safety net.
The good news is that agencies, organizations and even lawmakers are taking big bites out of this problem through small, innovative steps. But oftentimes, it’s only a cost-effective matter of preserving leftover food or re-purposing unused resources.
Food trucks deliver
The food truck fad is booming on college and university campuses, and schools are also using these vehicles as rolling restaurants to reach more students in convenient ways. But in the summer, these trucks sit idle.
At the University of Massachusetts, however, a Baby Berk food truck is being put to good use in its off months. In the summer, UMass uses Baby Berk to deliver between 2,000 to 3,000 meals five days a week to high-poverty sites in Amherst. The food is free to children under 18 years old.
A state official originally approached UMass with the idea, and university officials embraced it.
“Much of what is required to participate in this program is a continuation of things we do every day in our standard operations,” said Christopher Fisher, the university's manager of food trucks and commissary. “In addition to food trucks, we operate a production kitchen that distributes ready-to-eat meals across campus to over 20 retail food outlets. In the summertime, many of those outlets are closed. We are then able to allocate our capacity to producing summer meals with very little modification needed.”
The program is funded by the U.S. Department of Agriculture and administered by the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education. The university uses the reimbursement to buy more food and pay its staff.
At first, the recipients had mixed reactions, Fisher said.
“Most people were excited, but there were some people wondering what the angle was,” he said. “The most exciting part of this program is the simple fact that there is no angle. This is truly the proverbial ‘free lunch’ that we were all warned didn’t exist.”
This program would work for any university or organization that already has the food service infrastructure in place, Fisher said.
And not only does it help to solve the hunger problem, but the university has also been able to teach students about healthy food choices. For example, a recent menu item was a salad with antibiotic free-turkey. Undeterred by the salad, the young diners reveled in the experience.
“Through this program we were not only able to supply nourishment for children, we were able to introduce them to some new nutritional options in a unique way,” he said.
In Ohio, Middletown City Schools has also made a similar move with a $225,000 program that sends food trucks to students on non-school days.
Texas tweaks rules to allow in-school food pantries
In some cases, lawmakers are stepping in to allow simple solutions to repurpose unused cafeteria food. In 2017, Texas lawmakers passed The Student Fairness in Feeding Act, which allows schools to create food pantries. This allows a school to accept and store food from its cafeteria that would otherwise be thrown away.
Thanks to the passage of this legislation, San Antonio Independent School District now operates food pantries in several schools. The food is available to all students, regardless of whether they are food-insecure. Most foods are prepackaged or are fruit and vegetables, and the law requires schools to meet local and state health codes when donating food to the pantry.
In-school pantry programs are important, especially in rural areas where the food insecurity rate is 20.4%, says Laura Egan, an information specialist at the University of North Dakota Center for Rural Health.
“Food insecure households are more likely to access food at school compared to food pantries,” she said. It’s more convenient, especially in rural areas where miles separate families from traditional food banks.
While the school pantry idea is taking off in some areas, it makes up a very small portion of food distributed, Egan said. Such programs account for only .5% of food distribution programs. Traditional food pantries located in the community, meanwhile, account for 80.9%.
Corporations kick in
Darden Restaurants, the parent company of Olive Garden and several other restaurants, donates both dollars and fresh, unused food. Left-over fresh food is carefully vacuum-sealed in restaurants and delivered on refrigerated trucks to feeding sites, some of which are set up for low-income students during the summer.
Stephanie Slingerland, director of philanthropy and social impact at Kellogg, says the company looks for innovative ways to solve problems. For example, middle-schoolers may be hungry in the morning, but are unlikely to leave their friends in the common areas to go to the cafeteria to get food.
Through its partner, No Kid Hungry, Kellogg recently funded a breakfast cart that goes into the common areas, where students can grab breakfast while still socializing with their friends.
“You see the strongest participation at lunch, but we focus on breakfast,” Slingerland said. “We have seen significant growth in the school breakfast space.”
In the last two years, Kellogg has fed 1.1 million children through various feeding and nutrition programs globally, in addition to donating 1.1 billion servings of food for families in need.
Despite the growing number of programs aimed at filling young tummies, more can to be done, Slingerland said.
“After-school meals are on the horizon as the next thing that needs to be tackled,” she said. “Kids come to school, eat breakfast and lunch, and they aren’t eating again until the next day. What can we do to support dinners?”