By Maureen Berner*
What if we could tackle childhood hunger, develop local businesses, and create community jobs in the summer at the same time? There are millions of dollars in local food system sales being left on table, and millions of children who could be served by an established program, if we can only figure out a local meal distribution system that works.
The United States has had inter-governmental programs to feed hungry children when school is out for the summer since 1968 – almost 50 years. Programs include the Summer Food Service Program and the Seamless Summer Option. The federal government provides regulations, oversight, outreach and most importantly, funding to reimburse program costs. These federal programs are entitlements, meaning those children who are eligible, including all who qualify for free and reduced price lunch during the regular school year, are covered if served.
States administer the programs, conduct outreach and promotion, and provide additional oversight. In North Carolina, my home state, the state administrators work almost with an evangelical zeal in their efforts to serve more children. Locally, volunteer administrative sponsors must be found and trained, and they must be able to implement the program on the ground through meal sites, usually staffed by volunteers. Historically, these sponsors have been schools, established religious organizations or other established non-profits.
It is at the local level that the program breaks down. Nationally, only 1 in 6 eligible children are served. The program has never been successful in terms of participation rates. In North Carolina, over 850,000 children, the majority of the public school population, are eligible. Unfortunately, average daily attendance in the summer of 2015 was just over 80,000.
The problems are primarily based on local logistics and partner capacity. The fundamental issue is one of basic program design – the summer meal program is essentially an extension of the successful school lunch program, but placed outside of the school context. Without the transportation structure, routine, educational environment, professional staff and kitchens, how can we get the same type of nutritious food to the same kids? We have food, funding, and hungry kids. Who can help us figure out how to connect the dots and get the food to the kids and the kids to the food?
The green dots on the map below represent local neighborhood feeding sites for the summer of 2014. Children elsewhere in the state, in the yellow areas, are not even given the opportunity to access the program because there is no organization – local government, school, or non-profit – willing or able to offer meals. Even at places where meals are offered, lack of transportation is a critical barrier, and participation is low.
The promise for the future may come in reframing the problem as one of economic development and seeking private sector problem-solving capacity. This may mean collaborating with entrepreneurs, innovators, food systems experts, and food system business-owners, from farm to table. In the summer of 2015, these ‘missing’ lunches alone in North Carolina represented $149 million that could have been spent in the local and state economy. That funding could go to local farmers, grocery stores, restaurants, and food distribution companies large and small. Jobs would be maintained through the summer or new ones created. There is a market that is not being served – this is the very definition of a business opportunity.
This is a local capacity-building, economic opportunity issue. We have the potential to leave incremental change behind and transform an inter-governmental program into a public/private/non-profit partnership success. To do that, we’ll need:
- a distribution system can be designed at the local government level that works within current program guidelines; or
- an entirely new way imagined to locally implement these programs; or
- partnerships that bring in the missing skills or equipment;
To make these changes successful, we would want to pair such reforms with:
- easy approval of waivers to regulations that might impede testing entirely new models of meal delivery; and/or
- significant demonstration grants that provide start-up capital investment.
Millions of children across America are going unserved over the summer. Perhaps, a change in our thinking can help them access much-needed food. Economic development cultivates and promotes opportunity. Local government provides important services to sustain communities. Non-profits focus on meeting needs where government or the private market don’t go. Occasionally, there are places where these sectors can meet in a win-win-win situation. Summer inter-governmental programs may be one such win-win-win for the public, private, and social sectors.
* Maureen Berner is a Professor of Public Administration and Government and a Thorp Faculty Engaged Scholar 2014-2016 at the School of Government of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.