Rural Non-Congregate Summer Meals in 2023: Insights from the First Year of a New Program

Background. The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Summer Food Service Program (SFSP) and National School Lunch Program Seamless Summer Option (SSO) are federal summer nutrition programs that offer free summer meals to kids and teens at eligible locations when school is not in session. Traditionally, both SFSP and SSO required what is known as "congregate" meal service, a model where children travel to a location to consume a meal onsite. In 2010, Congress approved pilots to test additional nutrition interventions to help close the summer meal gap, including non-congregate meal service and Summer EBT. Both models were proven to reach populations that didn't access congregate meals, as well as improved children's consumption of healthy foods.

Then, during the COVID-19 pandemic, Congress granted USDA waiver authority, which allowed for non-congregate meal service across the country, providing a larger scale test of the approach. Non-congregate meal service was successful in reaching kids of all ages and different community structures. With these flexibilities set to disappear for summer 2023, Congress took historic action in December 2022 to authorize a permanent non-congregate summer meal service option. However, unlike the broad availability of non-congregate meal service during the pandemic, Congress only authorized non-congregate service in rural areas without congregate service. Congress allowed USDA to implement non-congregate service in summer 2023 using guidance previously developed for non-congregate demonstration projects and directed USDA to issue an Interim Final Rule on non-congregate service that was published December 29, 2023.

Objective. In rural communities, non-congregate meal programs like grab-and-go and direct home delivery can operate where congregate meals are not available in order to reach even more children during the summer months. The purpose of this study was to describe the implementation and elucidate lessons learned from this historic first year of the non-congregate summer meals option in rural areas in summer 2023. Through a combination of documented conversations and surveys with state agencies and sponsors, as well as Share Our Strength’s No Kid Hungry (NKH) staff who work directly with states, we have pieced together a comprehensive picture of what summer 2023 implementation of non-congregate meals looked like in terms of challenges, successes, and opportunities to expand and improve the program in summer 2024 and beyond.

Research Resources. The full research report, two micro-reports (one geared toward sponsors, the other toward state agencies) , and a brief on our state agency survey can now be downloaded using the menu on the right.