Las Vegas Sun

May 19, 2019

Currently: 78° — Complete forecast

School’s out, but free lunches still available for Las Vegas kids

Summer Food Service Program

Leila Navidi

Emma Cole, 10, talks with friends during Summer Food Service Program lunch at the Heinrich YMCA in Las Vegas on Wednesday, June 19, 2013. The Summer Food Service Program is a federal nutrition program designed to feed children free, nutritious meals and snacks during the months of June, July, and August when school is out.

Summer Food Service Program

Dallas Spears, 5, eats his lunch during the Summer Food Service Program at the Heinrich YMCA in Las Vegas on Wednesday, June 19, 2013. The Summer Food Service Program is a federal nutrition program designed to feed children free, nutritious meals and snacks during the months of June, July, and August when school is out. Launch slideshow »

Summer Food Service Program partners:

State-approved organizations that serve food to needy children are eligible for reimbursements from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which also operates the National School Lunch Program.

Nonprofit groups – such as food banks, community centers and faith-based organizations – may be reimbursed about $3.41 per lunch and $1.94 per breakfast. Last summer, these organizations were reimbursed about $1.1 million.

Summer food program partners must provide a nutritious meal. Lunches must include meat, grain, fruit, vegetables and milk. Breakfast must contain grain, milk and fruit.

There are 16 organizations in Clark County that provide summer meals through the federal Summer Food Service Program, including Three Square food bank, the Culinary Academy of Las Vegas, the YMCA and the Boys and Girls Club.

For the Culinary Academy, participating in the summer food program is a chance to help the community, but also many of its members. Culinary students help prepare food for the program, some of which goes to the children of culinary workers in Las Vegas.

"This is one of the most gratifying things we do as an organization," said Chris Fava, the CEO of the culinary academy. "Childhood hunger is certainly a very serious issue for us. We want to get the word out (about this program.)"

YMCA President and CEO Mike Lubbe echoed Fava's comments. Six years ago, the YMCA partnered with the summer food program to feed its summer campers and local children. Lubbe said he hopes the popular community destination will garner more participants this summer.

"It's a great program," Lubbe said. "We want to do our part to make sure kids are fed."

Impoverished children who receive free or reduced-price meals during the school year often have a difficult time getting nutritious food over the summer.

Karen Vogel knows this struggle all too well. As a nutrition programs professional with the Nevada Department of Education, Vogel helps administer the Summer Food Service Program, a federal initiative that provides a quarter of a million meals to Southern Nevada children each summer.

"Some of our kids have nothing in their fridge," Vogel said. "Often, their only balanced meal is at school. This program is here to bridge that gap when school is out."

Started in 1975, the Summer Food Service Program provides 2.5 million meals to schoolchildren across the country who may otherwise go without meals during the summer.

There's no cost to children. There's no registration or application forms to fill. And, it's open to anyone ages 18 and under who walks through the door — no questions asked and no identification necessary.

"It's free, kids love it and the food is good," said Brian Burton, president and CEO of Three Square food bank, a major partner with the summer food program.

Despite Nevada's weak economy, the state has one of the lowest participation rates in the country, said Ronna Bach, a special nutrition programs director with the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which operates the summer food program.

Nationally, just one of seven children who receive free or reduced-price lunches during the school year participates in the Summer Food Service Program.

The Clark County School District serves about 4.3 million meals a month during the school year, the majority of which goes to low-income children. However, the Summer Food Service Program serves about 83,300 meals per month over the summer.

The need for food assistance doesn't subside in the summer, Bach said. In fact, it has been growing during the recession, especially in Las Vegas, which has one of the highest unemployment rates in the country.

This difference in the number of meals served between the school year and summer months means that thousands of Las Vegas children are going hungry over the summer or eating junk food, Bach said.

Participation rates in Las Vegas are "significantly less than where we need to be," Bach said. "We have to do better. If kids don't eat, they don't develop physically and mentally."

Bach surmises that the summer heat and lack of school buses during the summer contribute to the lack of participation in the summer food program.

However, the biggest barrier to participation is a lack of awareness, Bach said. Program officials hope to boost the participation rate in Nevada by 3 percent this summer.

"Parents don't know meals are available and don't know it's free," Bach said. "We have the food. We have the ability and the commitment to feed these kids."

There are 57 "feeding sites" across Las Vegas open to the public.

Parents may call the 24/7 National Hunger Hotline at 1-866-3-HUNGRY or for Spanish, 1-877-8-HAMBRE for more information and the location of the nearest "feeding site."

"The fact that hunger exists, it's morally unacceptable," Burton said. "Come on out (to the program), and let's eliminate childhood hunger."

Join the Discussion:

Check this out for a full explanation of our conversion to the LiveFyre commenting system and instructions on how to sign up for an account.

Full comments policy