Food Brings Communities Together

Summer presents a crucial time to support youth in low-income neighborhoods. School’s summer closure can bring additional stress to low-income families and economically disadvantaged youth are less likely to have access to summer learning opportunities, forcing many families to create a patchwork and absorb additional costs of childcare. Many of these kids also lose access to a valuable resource; school lunch. According to a national survey, more than half of parents whose children receive a free or reduced price lunch during the school year find it harder to make ends meet during the summer. Without these resources, youth in low-income neighborhoods are at greater risk of food insecurity, obesity, and may lose months in grade-level reading skills. Cumulatively, this can have a negative impact on the health and vitality of our neighborhoods.

USDA summer meal programs aim to address this summer nutrition gap while also providing opportunities to ensure low-income youth have a summer safety net. Law enforcement agencies can play an important role in helping youth access these programs. USDA’s Summer Food Service Program enables schools, local and tribal government agencies, and community-based organizations (including PAL programs) to serve free, healthy meals to children ages 18 and under in low-income neighborhoods. Meals are free to all children and there is no application, sign-up, or identification needed. The fully reimbursed meals nourish children in need, provide communities with an infusion of federal resources and bring opportunities to build and strengthen community partnerships. Yet in California, summer meal programs are only reaching a fraction of eligible students.  In 2014, only 485,000 of California’s 2.4 million eligible students accessed summer meal programs, according to a recent report from the Food Research and Action Center. What’s more, California’s counties vary in their success in meeting the need, according to California Food Policy Advocates. Underutilization of these programs is often a result of lack of awareness among families, lack of activities at sites, and parent perceptions about site safety.

Law enforcement agencies across the state, like Pittsburg Police Department, are stepping up to help address these challenges by teaming up with schools, food banks, or other summer meal providers to provide activities at summer meal sites and to help spread the word in the community about this resource. In exchange, summer meal partnerships provide an opportunity for police agencies to engage with families and strengthen relationships in the community. In late July, Pittsburg Police Department joined Pittsburg Unified School District, the California Summer Meal Coalition, the Contra Costa District Attorney’s Office, the county probation department, health department, and local farmers at the Pittsburg Library to promote summer meals. In addition to serving free, locally sourced lunch to 320 families, the event provided an opportunity for kids to explore Pittsburg Police vehicles, meet officers, and meet K9 officer Zed; families were able to participate in the child fingerprinting program, receive free books and school supplies, and learn more about truancy and the importance of school attendance. Police Explorers interacted with kids and assisted with activities. An overwhelming success, the event highlighted how food brings people together and demonstrated how summer meals can bring whole communities together to benefit youth and ensure that they go back to school healthy and ready to learn.

 

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