Summer Meals Strategies
Effective planning and top-level leadership are critical factors in determining the success of any initiative. Child nutrition programs are no exception. When school leaders, especially superintendents and business administrators, embrace feeding children as an important piece of the academic continuum, child nutrition programs are most successful.
This leadership is critical to supporting food service directors in implementing successful summer meal programs and in enlisting the support of principals as key partners in feeding children year-round.
Planning for summer meal programs should begin in the fall. Start with engaging the school community. School leaders should clearly communicate the importance of the program. They should also solicit input from principals, parents, teachers and students to help shape and implement effective summer meal programs.
Summer meal programs are most effective when communities team up to serve meals. The most successful summer meal programs tend to involve close collaboration between the school district and local government.
Other important partners include libraries, healthcare providers and community and faith-based organizations that operate summer programs for children. Depending on the community, each entity can play a role in feeding children during the summer.
Some community organizations may be best positioned to act as sites, especially if they have programs already operating. Others may be able to provide programming at schools to pair with the meals served. Still other organizations may be best equipped to lead marketing efforts.
School districts, then, should consider which local agencies and organizations would be best positioned to help implement summer meal programs. Once partners are identified, school leaders should convene a meeting with key stakeholders to discuss these partnerships. This should happen early in the process — preferably in the fall.
Creating a community-wide working group that meets regularly to review progress, troubleshoot and strategize for expansion can help build effective summer meal programs and lead to expansion of other efforts to feed children.
Who are Good Community Partners?
Child care centers
Food banks and food pantries
Healthcare providers (i.e. hospitals, local clinics)
Local government, especially municipal
parks & recreation departments
Nonprofit organizations (Groups that serve
low-income children, such as the YMCA and
Boys & Girls Clubs)
The Child and Adult Care Food Program (CACFP) provides federal funds to serve afterschool snacks and suppers to children up to age 18.
In many communities, summer programs serve essentially the same group of children who participate in afterschool programs. To provide children with year-round nourishment, school districts should participate in both the summer meal and afterschool supper programs.
This approach eliminates gaps in service, allows districts to strike annual contracts with food vendors and enables districts to employ staff year-round.
Participation in both programs also reduces paperwork burdens, as documents uploaded in CACFP’s online system can be used for sponsorship applications for the summer meal program. The additional CACFP reimbursements can also help support summer meal programs.
Not only does dual participation strengthen program operation, it also ensures that students have access to good nutrition all year long.
Hunger Free New Jersey, Food for Thought: The State of Afterschool Meals in New Jersey
When discussing barriers to serving summer meals, school officials frequently report that buildings are closed for part, or all, of the summer for maintenance and repairs. This provides a unique challenge that can be overcome by sponsoring sites in the community where children already congregate.
Pools, parks, libraries, summer camps and housing developments all provide good opportunities for school districts to feed children in the community. Many of these entities already offer summer programming and have staff to supervise children.
Under this model, the school district manages the program and provides meals to sites. Even districts that have open facilities in the summer should consider partnering with community programs to reach more children and boost federal meal reimbursements.
No Kid Hungry, Recruit & Retain Sites & Sponsors
Many districts participating in SFSP use the program to feed children enrolled in summer school, enrichment and recreation programs and Extended School Year (ESY). Since children are pre-enrolled in these programs, school officials can more accurately estimate how many students to expect to feed each day.
But participating schools are required under federal rules to have an open-door policy, meaning they must feed any child who shows up for a meal. To do this, some districts split meal service into two parts — first serving enrolled children and then opening service to any child in the community. This helps to address security concerns since students in the academic programs are either dismissed or back in their classrooms before community meal service takes place.
However, without strong promotion and activities to attract children, many districts report serving very few children from the community. That’s why it is critical to market programs (see Strategy 10), as well as offer activities for children not enrolled in a program.
Extensive research documents that summer meal programs that provide structured activities for children attract far more students than those offering only meal service. In fact, New Jersey school officials interviewed for this guide uniformly reported that participation is low when only meals are offered.
While many districts already operate summer enrichment programs, expanding meal service to schools that do not offer programs requires thinking creatively about how best to attract children. One strategy is to partner with community organizations to provide programming.
This approach worked well in Dover where local churches teamed up with the town of Dover and community organizations to launch a new open summer meal site at St. John’s Episcopal Church. Each community organization provided activities one day a week. For example, the Patriot’s Path Council Boys Scouts hosted fun scouting-related activities, while SNAP-Ed at Zufall Health served up nutrition education and cooking fun.
Providing activities helps enhance children’s summertime experience, while also stabilizing participation, making it easier to operate a fiscally-viable program.
Serving fresh, healthy, tasty food is critical to building successful summer meal programs.
This can be a challenge for school districts in the summer, especially those that contract with a food vendor to deliver meals. Many resources, however, exist to help sponsors improve food quality.
Summer meal sites are the perfect places to highlight local products and feature fresh food, along with agriculture and nutrition education, especially here in the Garden State. From taste tests to school gardens, multiple resources exist to help sponsors bring local food to summer meal sites.
Through the New Jersey Department of Agriculture’s Farm to School Program, schools can partner with local farmers to source more than 100 types of Jersey-fresh produce grown right in the Garden State.1
Farmer’s markets and community supported agriculture (CSA) programs are other good sources for local foods, especially since the volume of product typically needed to fulfill summer meals is smaller.
For school districts that contract with food service vendors to provide meals, school officials can improve the quality of meals by strengthening contract language and improving vendor communication, including immediately addressing any food quality issues that may arise.
Food Research & Action Center, A How-To Guide for Summer Food Sponsors on Purchasing High-Quality Summer Meals
New Jersey Department of Agriculture, Farm to School Program
New Jersey’s five community food banks all act as sponsors for federal child nutrition programs and may be looking to add sites in the communities they serve. They are experts at navigating the systems while providing healthy food to sites in communities across the state. Following is contact information and areas served by all five of New Jersey’s food banks.
Community Food Bank of New Jersey serves up summer meals in Atlantic, Bergen, Cape May, Cumberland, Essex, Hudson, Middlesex, Morris, Passaic and Somerset counties.
Food Bank of South Jersey serves up summer meals in Camden, Burlington, Gloucester and Salem counties.
Fulfill serves up summer meals in Monmouth and Ocean counties.
Mercer Street Friends serves up summer meals in Mercer County.
NORWESCAP serves up summer meals in Hunterdon, Sussex and Warren counties.
Many summer meal sponsors report low participation in breakfast, especially at open sites. Children attending supervised activities, such as camps or recreation programs, are unavailable to come to a site for breakfast and lunch. This has led some New Jersey communities to switch to serving supper in the late afternoon or early evening.
By doing so, children in camps and other programs can participate. It is also more likely that parents are home and able to provide transportation and supervision. These sites often serve a snack and a supper. Under federal rules, sites are not allowed to serve both lunch and dinner.
Sponsors that have switched to serving supper report substantial increases in participation, as well as higher federal reimbursements.
New Jersey Food for Thought: Snacks and Dinners Boost Summer Meals in East Orange
With all the planning that goes into implementing summer meal programs, sponsors often overlook the critical function of marketing the programs to their communities. If parents are unaware of the program and where sites are located, participation will suffer.
Marketing must go beyond a single flyer sent home at the end of the school year or an ad placed in the local newspaper. Effective marketing must be consistent and ongoing.
Messages should include an easy way to find site locations and hours of service. The USDA operates an online directory, summerfoodrocks.org, where parents can input a zip code and find sites near them. Parents can also text “food” to 97779 to find sites. The state agriculture department uploads all open sites into this directory each summer.
It’s also a good idea to “brand” your summer meal program with a catchy title, coupled with engaging graphics of children eating and playing. This helps to eliminate stigma and infuses a fun element into the programs.
Involve the Community
Engaging the school and broader community in marketing efforts is especially important. Start with PTAs or other parent leaders in all schools to get the word out.
School officials should also team up with community organizations serving parents and children to circulate flyers, send e-alerts to their networks and prominently post site information on their websites and social media pages.
Libraries, childcare centers, social service organizations, faith-based organizations and the local department administering community and social service programs should all be involved in a community-wide effort to spread awareness of summer meals.
Marketing efforts should include a strategic mix
of messages and channels, including:
Flyers or letters sent home with site locations/
hours in students’ backpacks,
Prominently posting site locations on the school
E-mails to parents,
Printed information on the back of lunch menus,
Posters in common areas,
Social media posts,
A message on outdoor signs: “School’s Out,
Summer Meals Are Served!”
Sharing on partner websites, social media pages
and local online media (i.e. TAPinto, NextDoor)
Start Early and Share Often!
Planning for summer meals marketing should begin in the early spring, with marketing efforts continuing throughout the summer.
Sample Summer Meals Marketing Plan
Connect with community partners. Explain the program. Determine how each organization will
get the word out.
Create a marketing plan.
Begin planning a kickoff event.
Early June to school closing:
Send letters and/or flyers home to parents describing the program and providing site locations/hours.
Post locations and times prominently on the district website.
Place posters in high-traffic areas.
Launch robo-calls and e-mails to parents.
Include in morning announcements.
Print information on the back of lunch menus.
One week before program begins:
Issue a news release to local media outlets.
Invite media and local or state officials to visit your program.
Post on social media with link to sites and service times.
Hold a “blitz day” when community members team up to distribute flyers and/or other
Once school is out:
Share social media posts at least twice per week throughout the summer. Try to include pictures of
children eating and having fun.
Post a message on outdoor signs: “School’s Out. Summer Meals Are Served!”
Share on partner websites, social media pages and local online media. (i.e. TAPinto, NextDoor).
Send reminder emails and/or robo-calls to parents.
Continue to work with partners to get the word out.