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.

Resources

Summer Meals
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Summer Nutrition Program Social Impact Analysis

In 2015, Share Our Strength collaborated with Deloitte to develop the Summer Nutrition Program Impact Analysis. This report synthesizes existing research on summer meals and presents a primary data analysis from Maryland schools to demonstrate positive impacts of providing summer meals to children.

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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.
  • Tips for Staffing Summer Meals Programs include recommendations for strategically staffing your summer meals programs. 
  • 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.
  • Focus on Meal Quality: Meal quality is an integral component of any meal program. Meal Quality: Adaptability, Creativity and Fun shares promising practices from school nutrition teams across the nation that have utilized their creativity and ingenuity to master meal quality, such as how to focus on customer service and create an inclusive meals program, the importance of promoting your meals program, and how to stay inspired and keep the menu varied. 
  • 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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Summer Meals and FoodCorps for No Kid Hungry Partners

FoodCorps employs a team of AmeriCorps leaders to make schools healthier for kids in many states. This resource, developed with support from End Hunger Connecticut!, will help you identify opportunities to collaborate in your state, recommend ways to connect and provide ideas for activities.

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Summer Meals and FoodCorps for State Agencies

With a focus on creating healthy school food environments, FoodCorps service members are a natural fit for supporting program promotion and outreach, offering nutrition or gardening programming at summer meals sites, or supporting program operators with local procurement strategies.

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Afterschool Meals
Summer Meals
School nutrition employee and student smile together with tray of food

Optimizing Summer and Afterschool Meal Service

Want to improve efficiency, reduce waste, and increase participation in Summer and Afterschool Meals? This will help you do all three.

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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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Let Your Community Shape Your Program - Advancing Equity
Boy holding up his summer meal

Children and families are invaluable thought partners in designing school and out-of-school time meals programs. When families are brought in at every stage of program design and delivery – instead of a “top-down” approach that excludes community involvement – families are better able to access and are more excited about the meals served, and consequently, a greater number of children receive healthy and nutritious food.

Several resources are available to help program operators design inclusive summer meals programs:

  • Let Your Community Shape Your Program: The discussion questions and stories presented here are meant to serve as a resource for schools and nonprofit organizations looking to more meaningfully engage kids and their families in program design and delivery. Consider soliciting input from families and those working closest to families as you continue to discuss these questions and stories with your full team.
  • Conversation Starters for Designing More Inclusive School Meals Programs: These conversation starters can be used to guide conversations with school nutrition staff to a) identify barriers that students and their families may face in accessing school meals, and b) generate ideas for engaging students and families as partners in designing more equitable meals programs.
  • Designing a More Inclusive School Meals Program (webinar recording): This interactive workshop features school nutrition staff and community partners who work together to create inclusive school meals programs, specifically assessing and removing barriers students may face in accessing meals programs. The speakers provide insight into actionable items that school nutrition departments may implement in their own communities.
  • Designing a More Inclusive School Meals Program (webinar slides): Slides from the 4/7/21 workshop: Designing a More Inclusive School Meals Program
  • Advancing Equity: Designing a Meals Program that Reaches Every Child: This resource features questions that can be used as a set of prompts to take step back and evaluate whether your meal program is designed to reach every child in your community. The questions are meant to be a starting place for ongoing conversations that we should all be having about how we can disrupt systemic racism as an anti-hunger community and design better meals programs that reach every child.

While some of these resources focus on school meals programs, many of the principles can be used for planning summer meals programs. 

Want to learn more about equity in child nutrition programs? Check out this webpage for equity spotlights, resources, toolkits, and more.

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Afterschool Meals
School Lunch
School Breakfast
Summer Meals
Chinle, Arizona, woman delivers meals to another woman's home against beautiful dessert landscape

Let Your Community Shape Your Program

Discussion questions and stories for schools and nonprofit organizations looking to more meaningfully engage kids and their families in meal program design and delivery.

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School Nutrition Staff