Every year, the USDA Food and Nutrition Service funds a national summer food service program which helps feed children 18 and under during the summer break from school. Alachua County Public Schools is the sponsor for sites in the county with its Food and Nutrition department.
Caron Rowe, Alachua County Public Schools Food and Nutrition food services specialist, said this has been the biggest summer for Alachua County yet.
The program ran from June 4 to July 31 this summer, and during the month of June alone, 87,163 breakfasts and lunches and 9,531 snacks were served to children at 84 sites, according to Rowe. The meals are prepared every day at 13 schools around Alachua County, designated as host sites, and the food is then transported to each site by Food and Nutrition department staff. Staff members of the site, and also Food and Nutrition staff depending on the need of the site, then serve the food to the children at the designated, supervised times.
“Feeding this number of kids was a lot for us. It was a lot we had to do this year,” she said. “We have experienced staff that provide thousands of meals a day, and for a lot of them it is treated like business as usual.”
The number of sites taking part in the program has been rapidly growing in recent years. Five years ago, students could get free breakfast and lunch at about 30 sites. This year, meals are being provided to children at 84 sites including schools, summer camps, resource centers, recreation centers, parks, and other organizations. All of the sites are considered open and must allow any child to be able to receive the free meals regardless of income or other factors, said Rowe.
Organizations can apply for the program through the Food and Nutrition department, or independently through the Florida Department of Agriculture, to become a site where children can receive a free meal. The Food and Nutrition Department is always ready to expand the program to include more sites, and planning for the summer usually starts around February, said Rowe.
The sites must allow any child or teen 18 and under to receive a free meal, and sites can have food delivered to them, or they can pick the food up from a designated host site themselves. Sites can offer breakfast, lunch and supper, and details for each site including times and menus are located at the Alachua County Food and Nutrition department’s website, or on the USDA’s website.
The Waldo Summer Camp is one of many free camps in Alachua County that utilized the program this year and had free food for the children delivered to them. Children who are at the camp during the designated times for breakfast and lunch can receive a free meal.
Lisa Hill, summer camp director at the Waldo Community Center, said she started the camp because there weren’t many choices for summer programs near Waldo.
“A lot of people were looking for a place in Waldo for their kids to go during the summer,” she said. “Everybody was wishing they were living in Gainesville because there are so many more options there.”
The camp is run by volunteers and funded through donations, and is open to all children and teens 18 and under for free, said Hill. Many of the approximately 30 children who attend the camp rely on the program to get some of their summer meals.
Christine Jackson, a volunteer at the Waldo Summer Camp, said the meal program lessens the worries of parents.
“We have enough trouble during the school year trying to figure out how to transport these kids all the way to Hawthorne from here,” she said. “Now in the summer, we know they can eat and be in a good environment right here in Waldo.”
After the summer is over, the Food and Nutrition department prepares for the school year in a 12-day break from the end of the program to the first day of class, August 1 to August 12, Rowe said. The Food and Nutrition department handles the menus, logistics and preparation of food served at all Alachua County Public Schools.
“We serve about 3 million lunches and about 2 million breakfasts every school year,” she said. “Logistically we need the time to prepare.”
Alachua County Public Schools is also increasing the number of schools students can receive free breakfast and lunch without having to fill any application.
“We are very excited to say that 46 schools will have students receive free breakfast and lunch, regardless of income, during the upcoming school year,” Rowe said.