For nine weeks this year, kids can gather in any one of 250 locations across the county and get a free meal, regardless of income. The only criterion is age — participants have to be 18 or younger to chow down.
Each week the events have a theme such as “Superheroes in Space” or “Star Wars,” and many times the meals are paired with activities.
City Hall partners with Seattle Public Schools to provide summer meals, specifically breakfast and lunch. The meals are served cold to ensure food safety and include things such as fresh fruit, milk and a protein like cheese or poultry, said Teresa Fields, interim director for nutrition services at Seattle Public Schools.
The school district has partnered with the city for the program for almost 30 years. At the beginning of the summer, when demand was greatest, the district was producing 4,500 lunches and 2,500 breakfasts a day, Fields said.
In 2015, 205,271 meals were served to 5,036 children in Seattle alone. In King County, the total number of meals served was 696,096.
Those numbers may seem huge, but it’s likely that they cover only a portion of the need, and the burden has negative ramifications for poor children.
Children from low-income families often don’t have the same opportunities for summertime activities. Inactivity and a lack of healthy food can, paradoxically, lead to weight gain, and a lack of engagement during the summer can promote learning loss, said Claire Lane, director with the Anti-Hunger and Nutrition Coalition.
“[Health is] long-term,” Lane said. “All of that change is hitting them at a developmental point where three months is a long time, for a 7-year-old.”
It also has significant financial implications for poor families. According to the United Way of King County, a philanthropic organization, having a child at home instead of in school can mean another $316 per month on food, a hefty hit.
According to a report by the Food Research & Action Center, average daily participation in the summer programs totaled 48,959. Free and reduced-price lunches in schools? 348,777.
That means that for every 100 kids on free and reduced-price lunch, a program that requires a person to prove their income, only 14 children eat a free meal with much lower eligibility requirements.
Part of the problem is that locating the programs can cut people out, Lane said.
Children don’t have the documentation to prove how much money their parents make, so targeting the program to the kids who need it has to be done in other ways. In this case, it’s a mix of geography and the number of children in the area that qualified for free and reduced-price lunch during the school year.
Using either school or census data, sponsors have to show that their site is in a place where at least 50 percent of the local children qualify for free or reduced-price lunches.
That’s a high bar, Lane said.
“We don’t necessarily in every city have the same high concentration of poverty,” Lane said.
That can leave a lot of needy children out of a lunch.
Other qualifiers, like the presence of low-income housing, are helpful, but outreach to other kinds of institutions is critical to reaching children and making sure that the meals are culturally appropriate, particularly in a city as diverse as Seattle.
A successful summer program is all about networking and making sure that the word reaches as many people as possible.
In Fields’ words: “It’s for the kids.”