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Schools teach and feed students. As hunger rises, Colorado is racing to ensure kids eat this summer.

The state is recruiting more support for its Summer Meals Program. Without help from communities, kids may go hungry come May.

Centennial Elementary School first grader Eliana puts together her hamburger during lunchtime in the school cafeteria on Wednesday, Feb. 10, 2021, in Colorado Springs. Harrison School District 2 officials installed plexiglass shields down the middle of all the lunchroom tables. (Mark Reis, Special to The Colorado Sun)
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Many Colorado students are hungry to return to their classrooms and resume some sense of normalcy after almost a year of coping with the pandemic. And many of those students are just plain hungry.

It’s a reality that Erin Ulric struggles to put into words, and she knows that, come summer, the number of children experiencing hunger likely will escalate.

A recent survey conducted by Hunger Free Colorado found that more than half of Colorado households with children are facing food insecurity in some form. That’s up from before the pandemic, when about one in eight children didn’t always know how they would get their next meal, according to 2019 data from the Colorado Children’s Campaign.

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“So I think there’s a really, really significant need now that didn’t exist with these levels prior to COVID,” said Ulric, implementation director at the Colorado Blueprint to End Hunger, which aims to eliminate hunger in Colorado in the next four years.

Along with the Colorado Department of Education and Hunger Free Colorado — a nonprofit that connects Coloradans to food resources and also works to stop hunger — the Colorado Blueprint to End Hunger is working to recruit more sponsors, sites and partners for the Summer Meals Program so that more kids can access meals once the school year is over. Without enough sponsors, sites and partners for the program, other community agencies and organizations, like churches and food banks, often provide meals to fill in the gaps, said Ashley Moen, summer meal programs supervisor for CDE.

And in the worst-case scenario, Moen said, “kids just don’t have access to meals.”

The Summer Meals Program, known formally as the Summer Food Service Program, offers free meals to any kid age 18 or younger, regardless of whether they attend public school or whether they’re too young to enroll in school. The program is funded by the United States Department of Agriculture and administered in Colorado by CDE. The Summer Meals Program has been available for states to operate beyond summer months since last March, when the pandemic closed schools. USDA issued a series of waivers that, in part, enabled the program to run during the school year so that children would have a reliable and consistent source for meals. 

A Centennial Elementary School fifth grader drinks water from a carton during lunch in the school cafeteria on Wednesday, Feb. 10, 2021, in Colorado Springs. (Mark Reis, Special to The Colorado Sun)

Some requirements of the program have been eased, improving access. For example, in the past, students participating in the Summer Meals Program had to pick up their meals at a designated site and eat them there. Now students can eat their meals offsite and even get meals delivered. And in previous years meal sites were limited to areas with high concentrations of poverty. Since the start of the pandemic, that requirement has been waived so that communities anywhere in the state can stand up sites, Ulric said.

Those waivers currently in place expire at the end of June, but should they be extended, Ulric said there will be opportunities for many more sites, including in communities where residents are struggling with food security despite low poverty rates.

The Summer Meals Program always is short of partners, sponsors and locations, but the need has increased even more this year, particularly with how much more accessible the program has become.

Program partners are organizations that lend support through outreach as well as by increasing community awareness and by providing funding or activities at a site, Moen said. Sponsors take on the administrative and financial responsibilities of running the program and include school districts, government entities, universities and nonprofits. Sites are the physical locations where meals are handed out — ranging from parks to apartment complexes, schools, libraries and churches.

Ulric isn’t yet sure how many partners, sponsors and sites are needed statewide for the summer. Her team is collaborating with state agencies and a community coalition to devise a plan as they try to recruit more support. One of the immediate priorities centers on better understanding where current sites are located and how to improve access for families. It’s also critical to determine areas that don’t contain sites but have a need for them.

The Summer Meals Program has already drawn more sponsors this school year, with school districts, nonprofits and government organizations helping boost the number of meal sites statewide, Moen said She hopes to retain those new sponsors.

During a typical school year, kids eat school meals provided by their districts through the National School Lunch Program. Families who qualify can apply for free or reduced-price meals. Those who don’t apply can pay for their children to eat school meals.

Despite significant rates of hunger among Colorado families, the Summer Meals Program has been underused during past summers, Moen said. She said the numbers of students who participate have tended to be lower than the numbers of students who qualify for free and reduced-price lunch during the regular school year.

Moen points to a heightened sense of urgency to ensure meals are available for families and kids this summer, when the economic crisis stemming from the pandemic continues burdening many families with additional financial hardships.

She sees healthy meals as a foundation for children’s success — one catalyst that “allows kids to thrive in other areas.”

A Centennial Elementary School staff member wheels lunches through the cafeteria on Wednesday, Feb. 10, 2021, at the Harrison School District 2 school in Colorado Springs. (Mark Reis, Special to The Colorado Sun)

And without enough sponsors, partners and sites to roll out meal sites in communities this summer, more students may go hungry.

“It has really significant implications down to the family who is struggling with access to nutritious food,” Ulric said. “The quantity of families that that is, is shocking.”

Half a million meals in four months

Districts like Douglas County School District stepped up last summer to ensure kids would continue to be able to eat nutritious meals each week. The district of nearly 63,000 students operated at least 16 food distribution sites for families — about 10 more than it typically runs during the summer as the community faced an increased need for food, said Brent Craig, director of nutrition services.

From May to August of last year, the district served 568,728 meals, up from 42,126 in the same timeframe in 2019, according to data provided by the district. The half a million meals were fully reimbursable through USDA, Craig said.

He estimated that the district was serving about 35,000 meals a day during January, which included feeding anyone from the communty up to 18 years old. 

The district’s nutrition services staff — composed of about 450 employees across 84 kitchens — have found a rhythm in serving thousands of meals a day amid a pandemic, but it required a lot of creativity and fast-thinking at the outset. Craig had to guide a redesign immediately, intensifying sanitation efforts and enforcing protocols to prevent the spread of the coronavirus as well as protocols to protect food used in meals. The district has pivoted to prepackaged items and single serve items. Last spring as the virus shut down schools, his team had to revise school menus to accommodate both existing inventory in its warehouse and new kinds of food, including single serve items.

Currently, the district offers students three different kinds of meal kits, depending on whether they’re learning in person, remotely or in a hybrid fashion. Meals are distributed on Fridays at about 15 sites located at middle schools and high schools, Craig said. 

Those students fully in person eat meals at school and can also get weekly meal kits with two breakfasts and two lunches for the weekend. Hybrid learners can take home a five-day meal kit to cover breakfast and lunch for the weekends and weekdays they’re studying at home, and remote students can pick up meal kits with seven days’ worth of breakfasts and lunches.

In Harrison School District 2, in Colorado Springs, Superintendent Wendy Birhanzel estimates the district is feeding on average 100 to 200 extra people in the community each day. Since March, the district has relied on the Summer Meals Program to feed anyone up to 18 years old. It also launched a food bank at one of its high schools over the summer, delivering food from its supply to 25 families a day. The district, which has about 11,500 students, transferred its food bank operations to another local food bank in November. 

Centennial Elementary School second grader Ajiah picks out her hot lunch in the school cafeteria on Wednesday, Feb. 10, 2021, at the Harrison School District 2 school in Colorado Springs. (Mark Reis, Special to The Colorado Sun)

It also partnered with Care and Share Food Bank for Southern Colorado to facilitate food distributions weekly at a school site throughout the summer and fall.

“We had lines like you would not believe,” Birhanzel said.

The district currently serves breakfast to an average of 2,500 students each day and lunch to an average of 4,500 students, said Shelley Becker, assistant superintendent of business services.

Next week, all students who want to pursue in-person learning this spring will be back in classrooms, Birhanzel said, as the last cohort of high school students returns to in-person classes. The district continues to feed those students who are opting to do their coursework from home. Families can visit the closest school each weekday to pick up lunch for the day and breakfast for the next morning.

Harrison School District 2 offers breakfast and lunch to all students, no matter their family’s income, which district leaders say reduces the stigma against students who qualify for free and reduced-price lunch.

“It is leveling the playing field,” Becker said.

Birhanzel and Becker are starting to plan for the summer months, assessing current needs.

Birhanzel said that any time kids are out of school, many families still need a place to turn to for food. It’s a challenge to keep up and ensure all kids go to bed with a full stomach.

“The level of need is so dire,” the superintendent said, and a question constantly nags at her.

“Have we done everything we can?”

Rising Sun