COLUMBIA — Columbia Public Schools could begin providing lunch to its summer school students through a state summer food program, said Laina Fullum, director of nutrition services for Columbia Public Schools.
The Summer Food Service Program, which is federally funded and sponsored by the Missouri Department of Health and Senior Services, provides nutritious meals to children at risk of going hungry during the summer months when school lunch is not available.
What: The Missouri Department of Health and Senior Services will accept sponsor applications for its Summer Food Service Program, which provides meals to children in need during the summer.
Who is eligible: Schools, faith-based organizations, camps, private nonprofit agencies and local governments can apply to be sponsor organizations.
When: Applications, which can be found on the program's website, will be accepted March 1 through May 15.
More information can be found at health.mo.gov/sfsp.
Through the program, the department reimburses sponsor organizations for the meals they provide to students in need over the summer.
Beginning March 1, the department will start accepting sponsor organization applications for this summer.
Schools, faith-based organizations, camps, private nonprofit agencies and local governments are eligible to apply to be a sponsor organization. These institutions must be located in areas where at least 50 percent of children qualify for free or reduced-price school meals.
According to a previous Missourian report, at least 50 percent of students are eligible for free or reduced-price meals in 11 of 28 schools in the district.
"This program is so important for the Missouri children who qualify for free and reduced-price lunches throughout the school year," said Gena Terlizzi, spokeswoman for the Missouri Department of Health and Senior Services. "For many of them it may be the only hot, nutritious meal they get all day long, and we want to make sure this opportunity doesn’t end when the school year does."
This would be Columbia Public Schools' first summer participating in the program.
"We've never done it before, but it looks like a promising program," Fullum said. "It's a regulation overhaul for us, and we simply didn't have time for that in past years but it could benefit us this year if we could do it."
Fullum said getting on board with the food service program for the summer would save the district some headache in the future. The school district currently operates on nutrient-standard menu planning, meaning each meal offered on the school menu is analyzed with computer software for its nutritional value before it is served to students.
The Summer Food Service Program uses food-based menu planning, meaning each meal served is required to include meat or meat alternative, two fruits and/or vegetables, and a grain and dairy component. The meals are not analyzed beforehand for their nutrition value, Fullum said, but are nutritious by nature because of their balance.
Because all Missouri public schools are required to switch to food-based menu planning for the 2012-13 school year, getting the hang of the program during the summer will help Columbia schools ease into the new planning in the fall, Fullum said.
Columbia summer school has approximately one-fourth the enrollment of the regular school year. Beginning food-based menu planning during summer school will allow schools a test run and time to "work out some of the kinks," Fullum said.
"The benefit would be that we would get under our belt the food-based menu planning," Fullum said. "Time is a-tickin' and getting that in place in time is very, very challenging."
Fullum said although Columbia Public Schools does not yet require all school meals to have each of the food-based menu planning components, they are still healthy for kids.
"(It's) not that we don't hit on those components, we already know we're hitting the mark," Fullum said. "We're not meeting the mark in the dark.
"We preanalyze our menus to make sure nutrition is on par — we know that before we even serve the menu."
Although Columbia Public Schools has never participated in the summer food program, other organizations in Columbia have.
During summer 2011, the Boys and Girls Club of the Columbia Area, Douglass Park, The Intersection, Stephens Lake Park, Albert-Oakland Park, Bear Creek Family Site and Again Street Park served as Columbia's meal sites, according to the Summer Food Service Program site list.
The Douglass Park site, sponsored by the Columbia/Boone County Public Health and Human Services Department, will be returning this summer for its 12th year with the food program. Public Health Manager Mary Martin said the site will offer cold lunch every weekday June 11 through Aug. 10, except for July 4.
Any child who comes to the park during lunchtime can eat a free meal while having some summer fun, Martin said.
"We are in the park; we have the playground; we have the pool; we have the book mobile; we've had the Girl Scouts that have crafts for the kids," Martin said. "It makes it more of a 'going to the park' than it is 'going to get fed.'
"We like to think it is more pleasant that way than if they are just going down a food service line, told to sit down, eat and then leave."
Martin said Douglass Park volunteers served an average of 150 meals per day last summer, an increase from the summer before. Martin attributes the increase to last year's shortened summer school.
"Our leftovers we take to Loaves and Fishes, so people at the day center can have the cold lunch," Martin said. "But a lot of days last year, we didn't have leftovers."
The economy also played a role in last year's influx, Martin said.
"The economy was bad, so more parents were sending their children to us," she said. "The whole focus is, 'What happens to them in the summer?' If they don't go to summer school, a lot of times there is a lot of insecurity about how a kid is going to get a meal."
Sponsor organizations must go through training in order to participate in the program. According to the food program website, sites can be approved for one or two of three meals each day: breakfast, lunch and a snack.
The Missouri Department of Health and Senior Services will accept sponsor applications through May 15. More information about the summer food program can be found at www.health.mo.gov/sfsp.