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DOE increases participation in summer feeding program

Photo via Oklahoma Dept. of Education
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This, despite budget cuts

OKLAHOMA CITY -- Although the Oklahoma State Department of Education has enough federal funds to feed all children breakfast or lunches throughout the summer, state budget cuts mean that many of the traditional school sites that offer summer food service were not open or available.

However, despite the lack of funding for public schools to offer summer school programs in as many locations as in the past, Oklahoma’s participation in the federally-funded Summer Food Service Program increased 14 percent this year, resulting in 1.6 million free meals for children age 18 and under between May and August.

To reach and feed Oklahoma’s school children, the OSDE had to formulate unique and creative ways to make sure participation in the Summer Food Service Program could increase.

Almost 200,000 additional meals were provided this year over last year, largely due to creative partnerships with other agencies and a public awareness campaign, #FoodforThought, created by the Oklahoma State Department of Education (OSDE).

The Summer Food Service Program, administered by OSDE’s office of child nutrition, grew this year to 677 sites across the state, an increase of 5 percent, according to OSDE. In Oklahoma, nearly 62 percent of public school students are eligible for free- or reduced-priced lunches. Previously, only 6.4 percent of those same students took part in feeding programs during the summer months when school was not in session, ranking Oklahoma 51st in the nation.

“Our goal was to more effectively leverage federal dollars to help ensure a significantly higher percentage of our children and young people were benefiting from this free program,” said State Superintendent of Public Instruction Joy Hofmeister. “With the help of sponsors throughout Oklahoma, we were able to offer nutrition supports to thousands of families this summer, resulting in stronger bodies, greater focus and overall higher cognitive function when children returned to school this fall.”

Hofmeister said the OSDE partnered with organizations like the YMCA and Boys and Girls Clubs and other community organizations that offered summer programs to children to become summer feeding sites. Mobile feeding sites were also created to reach children who were unable to reach food programs due to lack of transportation.

“We really increased participation from providers,” she said. “We made use of faith-based organizations and mobile feeding sites. We are also addressing the hurdles facing our rural students. We began the push in the metro area, but are expanding across the state. As we have had a reduction in education funding, we saw fewer schools be able to offer summer school. The most efficient way to continue to feed the kids who were in free and reduced lunches is to continue to serve them in the school, but Oklahoma does not have the ability to offer summer schools at all the locations.”

Hofmeister said the reduction in state funding could not cover many of the summer school costs and teacher pay during summer session.

“We have a deepening crisis on how we avail ourselves to feeding children, which is eroding because of budget cuts,” she said. “The funding for the feeding program is through the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which flows through The Office of Child Nutrition. We have the funding to feed all children, not just those in the feeding program in the summer time. We just need more volunteers to distribute the program and sponsor meal sites.”

Increasing access to child nutrition by removing barriers to participation in food programs is one of the state’s six key initiatives under Oklahoma Edge, OSDE’s eight-year strategic plan to provide Oklahoma students with a competitive edge, according to a press release from the OSDE. The agency also has set a goal of increasing the number of meals served in the summer feeding program by 30 percent by 2025.

“Children can’t learn if they are hungry, and we want to make sure they remain strong through the summer,” said Hofmeister. “It takes a lot of training for a location to become a sponsor site, but now is the time to apply to be a sponsor site for next summer.”

Getting the word out to parents and children about the availability of summer meals was also a challenge. Many children and their families were unaware that the program was open to them during off months.

The #FoodforThought campaign emerged from collaboration between Hofmeister and her Faith-Based Advisory Council, one of several stakeholder groups with whom the superintendent meets regularly. Sponsors for this year’s program rose 12 percent to 182, and the total number of participating schools increased 13 percent.

#FoodforThought promotional materials included postcards, posters and door hangers. Oklahoma City-based Tyler Media provided metro-area bus benches and produced radio public service announcements in English and Spanish.

Bookmarks courtesy of the Metropolitan Library System were also part of the initiative. The Tulsa-area United Way and United Way of Central Oklahoma partnered with OSDE on the distributing materials.

“We also have a program where any kid can text the word ‘food’ to 877877, and be told where the closest feeding site it,” she said. “We had a very strong public relations campaign to drive kids to the more than 600 sites around the state.”

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Heide Brandes

Heide Brandes is an award-winning journalist and editor with more than 18 years of experience....

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