How one program ensures that children don’t go hungry over the summer

By Helen Mitternight

The last bell of the school year often means freedom for students, the end of homework and early mornings. But, for some, it also means the end of regular, nutritious meals.

But June 4 through Aug. 19, all children can eat free breakfast and lunch at the Medical University of South Carolina, thanks to Kids Eat Free, sponsored by the United States Department of Agriculture and administered by the South Carolina Department of Education.

“The program ensures that children have access to safe and nutritious food during the summer when the breakfast or lunch programs are suspended because school’s not in session,” says Debbie Petitpain, who is the Sodexo Wellness Dietitian at MUSC.

The program began after Debbie attended a USDA talk about obesity in South Carolina. The ironic connection between children who are food-insecure and obesity is that families, struggling to make ends meet, often buy the cheapest and most filling food, which is rarely the healthiest.

“I work for Sodexo and we’re really good at feeding people,” Debbie says. “I figured this was something we knew how to do and if we could figure out how to put this program in place, it made sense that it was something we needed to do. I thought it would be easy. I was wrong because the law isn’t written for non-traditional spaces. But it still had to be done.”

Sodexo is the food services company behind many hospitals, schools and sporting events.

The program began in 2015 and, in the summers since then, 13,000 meals had been served to kids in need.

“The first summer, we fed 2,385 and at the time, we went out to see what other hospitals were doing this. We found very few, but that meant we had sort of a blank slate to build the program. We wanted to make sure we were documenting the process so we could help others, and we’ve seen a 250 percent increase in hospitals doing this kind of a program. In 2017, hospitals across the country served 40,000,” Debbie says.

Anyone 18 or younger can eat breakfast or lunch for free in both MUSC cafeterias. At the closest elementary school, James Simons, 68 percent of the students qualify for free or reduced lunches, so Debbie says at least some of the children are probably from that school. Others are at the hospital for a medical appointment and take advantage of the free meals while there.

“We don’t ask them why they are here, they don’t fill out any paperwork. It’s beautiful, it makes all the kids the same,” Debbie says.

The goal, Debbie says, is to expand the program so that every child who needs meals has access to a site that serves them.

“It does highlight that there is an opportunity for places to serve summer meals and to create ease of access. The USDA has really been working to identify non-traditional partners,” Debbie says. “A great example is libraries. Ten years ago, you wouldn’t have thought of doing that, but it’s a trusted institution and it provides activity for the kids besides eating. We’ve seen a lot of these non-traditional places starting to get engaged in this program.”

To find the closest program: visit fns.usda.gov/summerfoodrocks or text “Food” to 877877