WARE — Early on a sunny Tuesday morning at the Stanley Koziol Elementary School, kids file out of school vans and line up at the cafeteria doors with their teachers, waiting to go inside and enjoy breakfast.
This morning’s meal of cereal and fruit is not only tasty. It’s also free, paid for by a federal program designed to make sure kids get nutrition not just during the school year but also through the summer months.
Sarah Luongo, 40, of Old Belchertown Road in Ware, brought her sons, Joseph and Merrick, to the breakfast. Merrick is attending summer school, but she said that’s not the only reason they come.
“In the summer it’s hard to get them three meals a day,” she said. “McDonald’s for a while was doing a $2 Happy Meal, but this is nutrition. He eats it, it’s social, he sees his friends.”
She looked across the table to Joseph, who was eating Rice Krispies out of a plastic container with his hands. Even with the appeal of a free, nutritious meal, Luongo said that sometimes, families are reluctant to admit they participate. Some, she said, don’t feel comfortable with the idea “that you’re economically needing a social service, a food program.”
But once kids come down together to get food with people they know, it becomes something fun — for adults, too. “They all make it socially acceptable; everybody does it.”
While the free and reduced cost meal program is a well-known feature of the public school year, the United States Department of Agriculture also provides meals during the vacation months. Democratic Congressman Jim McGovern says the program is designed to make sure children aged 18 and under get good nutrition year-round, but many families don’t take advantage.
“The number of people who participate is far less than those who are eligible,” he told the Advocate. “Kids don’t stop being hungry when the school year ends.”
Eligibility for the Summer Food Service program varies by state, based on average annual incomes. Right now in Massachusetts, children 18 or younger in a community where a family of four makes less than about $31,000 annually qualify.
This is not just an issue of getting any kind of food, McGovern said. “People who are food insecure tend to buy foods that are high in calories, because it’s cheap and it lasts — and these are the foods that very often result in health problems, including obesity.”
The nutritional content of every meal is tracked by the USDA and local providers. Different meal combinations are fed into software called Nutrikids, which determines the caloric content of the meal. This, McGovern said, is a critical part of the program.
McGovern said that in Hampshire County, “Only 18 percent of those eligible take advantage. That doesn’t mean that 82 percent couldn’t take advantage of the food; it means that either they don’t know about the program or it’s too difficult to get where the program is.”
He said that part of the problem getting the word out is a lack of money. “If the USDA had more money, we would have more resources to do more promotion and advocacy and expand who could get these meals,” he said. “But we’re dealing with a Congress where every year we have to fight to protect these programs. The need is bigger than what we’re providing.”
Jeff Nicholas, the Koziol Elementary School’s Food Service Director, said transportation is the biggest barrier to higher participation.
Attendance at the Koziol School’s free summer meals averages between 60 and 70 children for breakfast and more than 100 for lunch. Nicholas said he’s always seeking more families, whatever their situation. While families have to fill out applications detailing their income to qualify during the school year, there are no income or paperwork requirements for summer meals.
In the summer, all meals are free for children under the age of 18. Nicholas said he works hard to get that information out.
“We advertise in the local cable, we’re in the newspaper, we’re online, we have flyers, everything we can be to tell people ‘Just come on in and eat,’’’ he said. Anyone, he said, is welcome to come in for a meal, whether they are from Ware, a surrounding community, or even a surrounding state.
Ware public schools sponsor the summer meals, supported by a grant from the USDA that, according to Nicholas, stands at about $3,000. That pays for the food and the employees who serve it. Nicholas said this year, the school missed out on a larger grant that would have provided bus transportation, a particularly important offering in a rural area.
The number of meals served has been growing, said Jacqueline Rice, Media Relations Coordinator with the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, which administers the program. For many years, she said, 700 sites in Massachusetts provided the free summer meals. Since 2010, that number has grown to 930. For the past five years, this program has provided meals to about 50,000 children every day.
While federal funding for this program has risen for the last 4 years, up from $5,583,060 in fiscal year 2009 to $6,567,119 in fiscal year 2013, Ries said there are currently no plans to expand the number of facilities offering the meals.
Nicholas said that, from his vantage point, he sees a need to provide more meals to more children. “There are certain situations where people’s lives change in an instant. Someone loses a job, someone gets hurt, something happens, bills get tight, what do you do?”
Even without a drastic change in situation, these meals come as a relief.
Thirty-year-old Randal Ramirez of Willow Street in Holyoke brings his daughter most weekdays to the free breakfast at the Lt. Clarye P. Sullivan School on Jarvis Road in Holyoke.
It’s convenient for Ramirez, because he also works full-time on the school’s maintenance staff. “It’s a lot easier transportation-wise,” he said, “and I’m still with her.”
It’s also easier for Ramirez, a single father, to get 8-year-old Azalea a good meal.
“I just bring her here and they serve food,” he said. “Food, healthy food, it’s expensive to get. It’s free here, so why not?”
Ramirez, like Nicholas and McGovern, does his part to get the word out. “If I see someone, I mention it,” he said. “A lot of people just don’t know.”•