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DPI fights summer hunger with healthy meals for students

By Melissa Biediger | August 10, 2018 | Corporate Citizenship

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For many kids, summer means swimming, hours of playtime and fun in the sun. But summer also presents a challenge for children across our state who count on their schools for healthy meals.

Hunger at Home 

During the 2016-2017 school year, more than 680,000 North Carolina students participated in free or reduced-price lunch programs. They depend on their school’s breakfast, lunch and after-school meals.  When the school year ends, many kids lose access to these meals and are at the greatest risk of going hungry.

“Summer can be the hungriest time of the year for most kids, and they worry about where their next meal will come from,” said Cynthia Ervin, Summer Nutrition Program Manager at North Carolina’s Department of Public Instruction (DPI). “It baffles me that kids have this problem, and as a state, we have to do better for our children. They deserve it.”

North Carolina ranks as the 10th hungriest state in the nation.  And, 1 in 4 children face hunger on a regular basis.

Good nutrition gives kids the strength they need to learn and grow. It supports their mental, physical and behavioral development.

When kids grow up hungry, they are more likely to have health problems, and struggle at school and in social situations. Any lack of nutrition during the summer can make students more likely to fall behind during the school year.

Summer Relief

In North Carolina, DPI fights summer hunger and brings healthy meals to the students that need them most. Last summer, N.C. Summer Nutrition Programs served more than 5.2 million meals to children and teens at almost 3,000 locations around the state.

Still, many eligible students don’t get these meals. Although these programs are open to all students up to age 18, younger children are more likely to participate.

“As kids get older and make their own decisions, they’re less likely to seek out the summer meals, especially if they feel like there is a stigma that these programs are for disadvantaged kids,” Ervin said. “This year, we worked with middle and high school students to promote these meals to their fellow students. Now we have a rap, dance, PSA, and Snapchat, and we share all of our information across social media to reach these older students.”

DPI’s programs, the federally-funded Summer Food Service Program (SFSP) and Seamless Summer Option (SSO), partners with nonprofits, schools, and camps across the state to provide healthy meals to children and teens in economically disadvantaged areas throughout the summer. As sponsors, these partners choose a site in their community to make or deliver meals. Sponsors manage staff and volunteers while providing recreational or enrichment programs during mealtime. 

In Durham County alone, six sponsors supported 154 sites last summer. These sponsors served 401,235 meals and snacks – food that some children would have gone without.

Blue Making it Better

For more than five years, Blue Cross and Blue Shield of North Carolina (Blue Cross NC) has sponsored sites through the SFSP program. In partnership with East Durham Children’s Initiative, Blue Cross NC sponsors one site in Durham County. Throughout the summer, our volunteers staff this site and serve food to children and teens in the community.  In addition, this year, Blue Cross NC will sponsor two new sites in Orange County.

“Through our Backpack Buddies volunteer efforts during the school year we provide weekend meals and snacks for kids and families, but it was vital for us to find a way to help during the summer when food is scarcer for many low-income families,” said Cheryl Parquet, Director of Strategic Community Investments at Blue Cross NC. “Through the summer meals program, our volunteers are face-to-face with the families and children that are receiving the food, and we see the impact we’re making in the community.”

For information on summer meals in your area, check out the USDA Summer Nutrition Program Site Locator Map.