Community

The number of Kentucky kids getting access to a free, nutritious lunch during the summer is growing.

On a gorgeous day in Louisville, Sheppard Park in the Russell neighborhood is full of kids playing basketball and jumping around in their swimsuits at the splash pad. But everybody drops what they’re doing when the bus stop café comes around. It’s a box truck, full of pre-wrapped healthy lunches that are handed out for free to any child who could use a meal.

Children eat lunch at picnic table in park.Liz Schlemmer | wfpl.org

B.J and Bryah Washington enjoy a lunch from JCPS’s bus stop cafe at Sheppard Park.

Jasmine Harris came to the park Wednesday afternoon with her two kids and her niece and nephew to play and have lunch.

“On days that I don’t have their lunch, it’s awesome. You know, I don’t have to worry about what they’re gonna eat until dinnertime,” Harris said. “They can just sit at the park and eat their lunch and have a good day — and they think it’s a picnic.”

Harris says the extra meal helps her wallet out because her kids typically receive subsidized lunch during the school year.

A new report by the nonprofit Food Research & Action Center (FRAC)  found the number of Kentucky kids getting free summer lunches went up by 15 percent last year, in part because of mobile units like this one run by JCPS. Still, out of every 100 Kentucky kids who get free or reduced price lunch at school, only about nine are reached by these programs.

“That’s sad,” Harris said. “Because, if they’re anything like me when I was little, or my kids, you know, they’re hungry.”

And because, as Harris’ niece Ahmiah Neal, says of the lunches she got at the park this week: “They’re really good.”

Liz Schlemmer | wfpl.org

Bryah Washington and cousin Ahmiah Neal say the chocolate milk is their favorite part of the lunch they received from JCPS’ summer food program.

Against The National Trend, Kentucky’s Summer Food Program Is Growing

The report by FRAC found that most states saw a drop in participation in federally-funded meal programs for kids last summer, while participation in Kentucky rose. Clarissa Hayes, a co-author of the report, says it’s not clear why so many states saw a decrease that year in particular, but the programs face challenges.

“It really does come down to there just not being enough summer programming and enough summer sites for kids to go to, to access these meals. I would say that’s probably the number one reason we’re seeing this drop,” Hayes said.

“The other reason on a national level is a simple lack of awareness,” Hayes added.

Despite those challenges, Kentucky is bucking the trend.

Cathy Gallagher is the program manager for the Summer Food Service Program run by the Kentucky Department of Education in conjunction with the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

“We’ve had an increase for the last three or four years — and a significant increase the last three years — with more and more children receiving these meals each summer,” Gallagher said.

Gallagher and Hayes credit that rise to a few factors. For one, Kentucky has a more coordinated effort than most states; the Kentucky Department of Education works with community partners and school districts across the Commonwealth to expand the program. Gallagher’s office has also worked to start more mobile programs to reach kids in rural areas, and to meet children where they already are — in parks, pools and housing complexes.

“I think a lot of other states don’t have that same established coordination,” Hayes said.

How To Find A Meal Site

Anyone looking for a food site this summer to get a free meal for a child (regardless if he or she is enrolled in school or qualifies for free or reduced price lunch) can:

  • Text “food” or “comida” to 877-877 to get a personalized list of sites near your address or ZIP code. This texting service draws from the USDA’s database of information on summer food programs. 
  • In Louisville, you can visit JCPS’ map of its summer food sites. If you have more questions, you can call JCPS School and Community Nutrition Services at (502) 485-3186.
  • Anywhere in the US, you can visit the USDA’s 2019 Summer Meal Site Finder.

Gallagher says all those outreach efforts are needed.

“We have many more meals that we could be potentially serving across the state,” Gallagher said.

Even with the recent growth in the summer food programs, FRAC still ranked Kentucky near the bottom nationally: the commonwealth was 41 out of 50 states based on the percentage of students on the free or reduced price federal lunch program who receive free summer lunches.