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States realize summer food program needs to change

Roman Battaglia
Delaware Public Media

The Summer Food Service program delivered over three times more meals to Delaware children than usual last summer.


And temporary changes to the program have ignited a call to make them permanent.


In a typical summer, nonprofits, like the Boys and Girls club in Laurel, join schools across the state in opening their doors to thousands of children and offer over 800,000 meals as part of the federal Summer Food Service Program.


Last summer, during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, the state’s program director Aimee Beam says that number jumped up to over three million meals.


The ability to expand the distribution system — including delivering meals to neighborhoods and giving kids up to a week's worth of lunches ahead of time are things Beam says Delaware and other states look to make permanent.


“There’s actually some pieces of our federal regulation that if we could change would help us to create that greater access,” Beam said. “In particular the non-congregate meal requirement — so normally coming to have to sit and eat on site, that has been waived. And I think that is one of the biggest factors that allowed us to serve more meals to the kids.”


Beam says most of the rules surrounding the program were put in place to ensure the food is safe and make sure it goes to the right mouths. Children are required to have to come to a location and eat their meals there, to ensure the food is prepared correctly and that parents or siblings aren’t taking the food from the child.


Beam says they’ve navigated around those concerns by making sure the food comes with preparation instructions and continuing to offer in-person meal services. 


She says the benefits of reaching more children outweigh the potential risks that guided the implementation of those rules when the program began.


Sen. Tom Carper (D-Delaware) visited the Boys and Girls Club in Laurel to deliver meals to kids, and agrees that flexibility helps serve more kids in need.


“We thought we were doing a pretty good job of outreach and feeding children before,” Carper said. “And in the midst of this pandemic and all this adversity we’ve learned there’s a better way to do this, a more effective way — and hopefully a more cost effective way as well.”


And Carper adds this week families are also beginning to receive monthly child tax credits as part of the American Rescue Plan.


He says those will be helpful for families recovering from the pandemic, and wants to see how they work this year to determine if they should become permanent.


Beam says the meal program will revert back to normal next summer, but she anticipates they’ll still serve more meals in future years because the program has gotten so much more attention during the pandemic.


She adds she’s talking to nearby state directors and with the USDA on changing the rules that have remained in place since the 60’s.


To find a summer meal site, Delawareans can call 2-1-1 or text "food" or "comida" to 877-877.


Roman Battaglia is a corps member withReport for America, a national service program that places journalists into local newsrooms.

Roman Battaglia grew up in Portland, Ore, and now reports for Delaware Public Media as a Report For America corps member. He focuses on politics, elections and legislation activity at the local, county and state levels.
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