Schools may be on a break for the summer, but the hunger inside youngsters doesn't know it's vacation time.
For this reason, many schools throughout Texas are participating in the Summer Food Service Program, which provides free meals to youths throughout the summer when they are on break from school.
"More than 50 percent of the children in White Settlement ISD come from low-socioeconomic homes. This program enables our kids to have a free, nutritious breakfast and/or lunch on many days during the summer," said White Settlement ISD Superintendent Frank Molinar. "We know that meeting our kids' essential needs is imperative to their success. We believe that as a district we must do whatever we can to support our families ... even in the summertime. Providing these free meals helps our families and especially our kids, and it contributes to their overall health."
White Settlement is one of many Fort Worth area school districts that participate in the Summer Food Service Program. Through the program, a part of the United States Department of Agriculture, children 18 and younger may receive free meals and snacks. These are also available to persons with disabilities over age 18 who participate in school programs for people who are mentally or physically disabled.
In Texas, the program is funded by the Texas Department of Agriculture.
Participants are invited to visit designated sites within set hours to receive their free meal. They are not required to show proof of age or income. It's really that simple.
For example, the Weatherford school district has several locations serving lunch from 11:30 a.m. to 1 p.m. weekdays. It has served more than 42,000 meals since it began in 2014.
Meals vary with each location, but they typically include hot entrees and sandwiches, along with fresh fruits and vegetables. Breakfast items include waffles, breakfast burritos, pancakes, eggs, sausage, bacon, biscuits and French toast.
"The first summer we had children tell us that prior to the start of Healthy Kids (the name of the Weatherford program), they just didn't eat lunch during the summer," said Charlotte Lagrone, the Weatherford school district executive director of organizational culture.
The Granbury school district started its summer free lunch program in 2007. It was the brainchild of the district's Operation School Supplies leadership team, said Granbury ISD Public Information Director Jeff Meador.
Meador said the team takes the meals to targeted neighborhoods with concentrations of families and children with economic needs. Other area locations include parks, libraries, community centers, beaches, schools, and more.
"We felt it was critical to take meals to the kids rather than just serve at schools," Meador said.
Despite having the appearance of an affluent community, including numerous golf courses and country clubs, Meador said the Granbury school disrict has between 45 and 50 percent of its students on free or reduced lunches during the school year.
Several of the sites turn the occasion into a fun opportunity, with some even handing out age-appropriate books, hosting fitness and exercise events, and some churches even combining it with vacation Bible School. In Granbury, for example, Meador said organizations such as Ruth's Place, Hood County Boys and Girls Club, Hood County YMCA, and the Granbury Theatre Company join in to help.
"These activities expand the experience beyond just getting a meal," Meador said. "They help build trust and provide programs and partnerships for the whole family."
To which Grapevine-Colleyville schools spokeswoman Kristin Snively added, "Food always brings people together."
Snively said her school district serves an average of 240 breakfasts and 435 lunches each day at two sites.
Arlington's free summer lunch program has been in place for nearly two decades. Like most sites, participants do not have to be a resident of that city or attend that school district. The main thing, according to Arlington school district spokesman Leslie Johnston Birdow, is "Students who might not otherwise have access to breakfast or lunch are able to receive those meals."
Birdow also noted that for some students, the only solid meal they receive each day is at the school cafeteria, so continuing to provide healthy meals during the summer is a must.
And while there is no limit to how many times a participant can visit a site during the summer, some districts ask that the meals be eaten on location. However, enforcement of this depends on the location.
"Technically, the meals should be eaten on site, but we cannot force anyone to remain at a location once they have their meal," Meador said, adding that participants can only get a meal for themselves and not for friends, siblings, or others not actually present.
Also, the program is not only for underprivileged families. It's not uncommon for students participating in summer school, or athletes in summer workout programs, for example, to come grab a free meal. After all, there are plenty to go around.
"Our district does try to coordinate summer programs with locations where we are offering summer feeding. Summer school may be planned at a feeding site so children attending summer classes can also have free breakfast and lunch," said Eagle Mountain-Saginaw school district spokesman Megan Overman.
However, the main reason for the lunches is to help those in need. The bottom line is to make sure no child goes hungry.
"There are children who depend on their schools for free or reduced-priced meals throughout the school year. When summer comes, these school-year programs end, but the children still have a need," Overman said. "The Summer Feeding Program fills the gap between school years."