Charleston sees big spike in number of students eating summer lunch after changing program to serve hot meals
Twelve-year-old Jordan Gadsden got tired of eating the same lunch every day last summer — a sandwich, milk, fruit and a vegetable.
Who can get the free meals
Low-income areas where at least half the children live in poverty are considered open sites. Any child can go to the site to receive a free breakfast or lunch.
Charleston has 10 of these sites: Baptist Hill High, Burke High, Mary Ford Elementary, Murray-LaSaine Elementary, Sanders-Clyde School, St. James-Santee Elementary, St. Johns High, School of the Arts, Stall High and the Charleston Charter School for Math & Science.
Sites provide free meals to children enrolled in an activity program where at least half of them live in poverty. Charleston has 136 of these sites.
U.S. Department of Agriculture
That has changed this summer, and she looks forward to a rotating menu of hot meals. On Wednesday, she dug into a plate of baked chicken, a roll, green beans and an orange.
“It tastes fantastic,” she said.
Charleston County school officials decided this summer to provide for the first time hot meals instead of bag lunches at the 146 sites where children receive food.
The improved variety and meal quality has triggered a dramatic increase in children’s participation. With roughly the same number of district students, school leaders expect to finish the summer with a 20-percentage-point increase in lunches and breakfasts served compared with last year.
“I knew we were going to do more meals,” said Jeremy Tunstill, the summer feeding project manager. “I just didn’t know it would be this many more.”
Charleston offers the free food as part of the federal Summer Food Service Program, which reimburses groups offering meals in low-income areas. The school district provides the meals in places where either the nearest school or its summer program has more than 50 percent of children living in poverty.
Ten Charleston sites provide breakfast and lunch to any area child.
School officials say it’s an important program because many children rely on the school-provided meals during the school year, and they might not have food available in their homes during the summer.
The federal program was offered at nearly 35,000 sites to more than 2.2 million children across the country in 2009. In the Lowcountry, the Berkeley County School District also has seen an increase in participation, from 3,100 children last year to 3,800 this year.
School officials attributed the growth to switching to hot meals this year, as well as increasing the number of weeks the program is offered, said district spokeswoman Susan Haire.
Dorchester District 2 doesn’t offer the program, and rural Dorchester District 4 offers sandwich lunch meals to children at 42 sites.
In Charleston, the school district had tried but failed to offer hot meals in the past. Walter Campbell, the district’s director of nutrition and food services, started after that unsuccessful effort.
He knew participation in the summer meals program dropped off after a few weeks, and he heard from workers who said students were tired of eating sandwiches.
He knew the Lowcountry Food Bank serves hot meals through a similar program, so he decided to use its model. The district bought 344 small warming containers that sites could use, and it increased its summer staff from 30 to 53, because food preparation took more time.
Staff members tested the warming containers — they wanted to see whether food was kept warm and how many meals could be carried — and they provided training on how to set up serving lines.
Meals are prepared at 10 centralized sites, and groups pick up the food at a designated time each day. Providing hot meals means more logistics and more food-safety and quality rules, but Charleston officials said it’s worth it because it’s to kids’ benefit.
That’s proving true in participation figures. Last year the district served 150,000 lunches; it surpassed that figure on Tuesday, with nearly three weeks of food service remaining.
Tunstill expected to end the summer with 190,000 lunches served. The higher participation numbers offset the higher cost of staff and supplies, and Campbell expected to at least break even.
Michelle Mitchell is director of the Little Bulldog Summer Camp at Burke High, which serves about 180 3- to 12-year-olds during an eight-week camp.
In years past, she said children would grow weary of the bag lunches, not because they weren’t good, but because they didn’t want the same meal day after day. Many started bringing snacks from home because they ate so little of their lunches, she said.
She was surprised and excited about the hot meals this year, and she said she hasn’t had any complaints from students. The menu ranges from cheese pizza to hot dogs to beefaroni.
“It’s a good change for them,” she said.
Far more students were chowing down on the school-provided food than lunches from home on Wednesday. Kadeem Murray Porcher, 11, is in his fourth year of attending the camp. He said he stopped eating the meals last year because “I wasn’t in the mood,” and this year was a “great improvement.”
He ate all his chicken but said he didn’t want the green beans.
Neither Porcher nor Gadsden liked the idea of going back to bag lunches.
“That would not be good,” Gadsden said.
Reach Diette Courrégé at @Diette on Twitter or 937-5546.