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Sponsors can strengthen their programs and bolster attendance by pairing meals with activities, increasing the accessibility and appeal of the meals, and engaging youth as partners in program operations and outreach. Community organizations and anti-hunger advocates have a role to play in connecting sponsors with potential partners and technical assistance resources that facilitate implementation of these best practices.

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Pair Activities with Meals
young boy about to throw a rubber ball on a playground

While not required for most sites, pairing meals with activities is an established best practice for boosting program participation and retention rates during the summer. When participation rates are stable, it becomes easier for sponsors to accurately predict the number of meals needed for service. This limits food waste, facilitates meal service at sites, and helps sponsors more accurately forecast labor needs and program finances. Most importantly, activities at sites provide children the opportunity to continue learning and socializing with their peers when school is out of session, thereby combating the ‘summer slide.’

Summer learning loss, particularly loss in reading proficiency, compounded over several school years contributes to the achievement gap between children from low-income families and children from higher-income families. This phenomenon is known as the 'summer slide'. Research shows that about two-thirds of the ninth grade reading achievement gap between lower- and higher-income youth can be explained by unequal access to summer learning opportunities during the elementary school years. Learn more about the 'summer slide' and linkages to summer nutrition by reading Deloitte’s Summer Nutrition Program Social Impact Analysis.

Fortunately, a number of helpful resources exist to support the provision of activities at summer meals sites:

  • Summer Food, Summer Moves: This fun, hands-on resource kit from the USDA is designed to get kids and families excited about healthy eating and physical activity during the summer months. All materials are available for download and copy. In addition, schools, childcare providers, and summer meals programs participating in any of the USDA’s child nutrition programs may request free printed materials.
  • National Summer Learning Association: The National Summer Learning Association has a range of resources for communities seeking to develop or expand high-impact activity programming during the summer.

When children participate in activities and receive healthy meals during the summer months, they are more likely to return to school healthy and ready to learn. At the same time, by providing additional structure and participation incentives at meal sites, sponsors are likely to benefit from enhanced program participation and retention rates that support program finances over time.

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Optimize Meal Service
Young girl sitting outside about to eat her meal on a hot summer day

Efforts to optimize meal service can increase participation over time as children and families develop trust in the value of your program. By making deliberate changes to improve processes around meal preparation, delivery, and service, sponsors cultivate a positive image of summer meals across the community.

A number of resources are available to support program sponsors and anti-hunger advocates seeking to increase the quality and appeal of meals served to children during the summer months.

  • Optimizing Summer & Afterschool Meal Service: Optimizing Summer and Afterschool Meal Service from the No Kid Hungry Center for Best Practices provides tips, resources, and thought starters so that you can improve the quality and presentation of the meals you offer in order to build buy-in among potential sites and minimize waste while serving more meals.
  • United States Department of Agriculture (USDA): USDA’s Summer Food Service Program Nutrition Guide provides comprehensive guidance on planning quality meals and ensuring food safety during the summer months. Additionally, USDA has extensive online resources to support successful implementation of Farm to Summer programming.
  • Food Research & Action Center (FRAC): FRAC, a national anti-hunger organization, has published how-to guides supporting sponsors on incorporating local foods in summer and afterschool meal programs, as well as purchasing high-quality meals from vendors during the summer months.
  • FoodCorps: FoodCorps is a nationwide team of AmeriCorps leaders who collaborate with communities to make schools healthier places for kids to eat, learn and grow. Working in partnership with USDA and No Kid Hungry, FoodCorps has created resources to introduce state agencies and No Kid Hungry partners to the range of opportunities for partnership between FoodCorps staff and summer meals programs to support promotion and outreach, offer nutrition or gardening programming alongside summer meals, or support food service staff with local food procurement.
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Engage Youth
Young boy in a gymnasium eating lunch and enjoying himself

Youth engagement empowers young people to have a voice in decisions that affect them in their local communities. Program providers can play a positive role here: take the opportunity to consider the preferences and needs of the youth you serve. Youth crave a sense of ownership and want to know that their input is valued, so seek out ways to incorporate their insights into program design and implementation.

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