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Federal program makes sure students won’t go hungry over summer

Mike Szymanski | May 27, 2016

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Jesus Mendoza, regional administrator for the USDA, visits a San Fernando Valley school.

Students who depend on eating at school for their one — and sometimes only — meal of the day will be able to more easily find a location for free meals during the summer.

The expansion of the federal Summer Food Service Program will provide more meals to children and teens 18 years and younger during summer at school locations, Boys & Girls Clubs, community centers and social service agencies.

Students who typically get free and reduced lunches during the school year can now find other sites during the summer.

“We are reaching out more than ever before to places where we know we can reach these students and letting them know that some sites have breakfasts, lunch, snacks and dinners and they don’t have to apply or sign up, they just need to show up,” said Jesus Mendoza Jr., the USDA’s regional administrator for the Western Region of the United States. “Our summer meals program has really taken off, but we are concerned because many of the schools had to cut summer school programs and we want them to still have nutritious meals.”

• Read more: LAUSD is expanding summer school this year

Last summer, the federal program served 190 million students; this year they plan to reach 200 million nationwide. The federal government sponsors sites to run the program and get the word out to camps and faith-based and other nonprofit community organizations in low-income areas.

“Also during the summer months is a time when children gain weight if they are not physically active and are not eating nutritious meals,” Mendoza said. Some of the food programs are at libraries as well, where children spend the day and are involved with reading programs. Mendoza noted that Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti’s office announced a Get Summer initiative in April that the USDA is also working with to help keep students properly fed. The program gives youths ages 12-17 free access to all LA County YMCA’s in June and July.

For LA Unified students, that federal program means students can, for example, get breakfast and lunch at Granada Hills Charter in the San Fernando Valley from the day school ends until July 22, or if they live in San Pedro they can go to Bobbie Smith Elementary School in the Long Beach Unified School District for lunch between 10:45 and 11:45 a.m. The government aims to put the program in sties within 10 miles of any given address in the Los Angeles area.

LA Unified gets slightly less per meal for their summer food programs than they do during the school year, Mendoza said. The food program over the summer doesn’t contribute to the school’s budget debt, school officials said. The program also allows some of the district’s cafeteria workers to be employed throughout the year, Mendoza said.

Of the 750,000 meals dished up for breakfast, lunch and dinner to LA Unified students, more than 76,000 are served around dinnertime to about 140,000 students who stay after school, said Laura Benavidez, co-deputy director of Food Services.

“Sometimes, it will be the only meal the children will have until the next morning,” Benavidez said. “We want to make sure that students are properly nourished because it does help with their education.”

The meals, according to federal guidelines, consist of a protein, fruit, grain and dairy. Nationally, about 15.3 million children are living in households where they’re not sure where the next meal is coming from, and the USDA has served more than 1.2 billion summer meals since it started in 2009. About 22.1 million youth already receive free and reduced-price meals through the National School Lunch program, yet only about one in six of those (about 3.8 million) participate in the summer meals program.

More than 6,700 sponsors help dole out the summer meals — that’s 700 more than last year — and the number of sites increased by 20 percent to more than 66,000 locations.

The Summer Meals Site Finder ( is a free, web-based application that features an easily searchable map to help locate sites serving summer meals. Last year, the site got about 5,000 visitors per day and as many as 69,000 page views per week.

Families can also identify nearby sites by calling 1-866-348-6479 (English) or 1-877-842-6273 (Spanish) or using a text service operated by a USDA partner by texting FOOD (English) or COMIDA (Spanish) to 877-877.

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