Coming Together Now to Help Children Receive Meals During the Summer
It’s time for winter break at schools throughout Georgia—but it’s also the time for communities to start collaboratively planning ways to increase access to healthy meals, safe environments, and books and educational opportunities during the summer months.
The Get Georgia Reading Campaign’s latest coffee chat centered on how to effectively utilize existing summer meal resources for children 18 and under, providing concrete examples of how partnerships can increase access to food and improve childhood literacy.
“This year’s summer reading theme is All Together Now, which feels like a good banner for everyone to gather around for uniting our services for families across Georgia,” said Evan Bush, Georgia Public Library Service (GPLS) director of youth services.
Collaborating to Meet Communities’ Needs
The Seamless Summer Option (SSO) and Happy Helpings, Georgia’s Summer Food Service Program (SFSP), are both funded by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) and serve free, nutritious meals to all children from birth through 18 when school isn’t in session. The programs are also available for people with disabilities who are over age 18 and participate in school programs for the mentally or physically disabled.
SSO, administered by the Georgia Department of Education (GaDOE) through the local school districts, and Happy Helpings, administered by the Georgia Department of Early Care and Learning (DECAL), offer children two meals—breakfast, lunch or supper, or snack. Communities can combine SSO and Happy Helpings as long as they aren’t serving the same meal.
“We all know children need access to these meals and need more than just a snack or a lunch,” said Tamika Boone, DECAL director of Nutrition Services. “This is a collaborative way for organizations to meet their community’s needs by leveraging both programs—or even just participating in one of them.”
There’s no paperwork required for families to participate in SSO, and more than 80% of Happy Helpings sites are open sites, with the exception of residential summer camps.
While these summer meal programs are exclusive to Georgia’s youth, communities are encouraged to find ways to serve the whole family. The FoodFinder mobile and web app also helps students and families find food pantries, kitchens, and shelters near them.
“Some businesses or faith-based locations that serve as SSO sites provide food outside of the program to adults who are bringing children,” said Linette Dodson, GaDOE State School Nutrition director.
“We encourage sites to offer meals to the whole family if they have the capacity—or offer activities or resources for families so everyone can benefit during the summer months,” added Boone.
Many existing Happy Helpings sites are also well-positioned to offer after-school meals during the school year through the Child and Adult Care Food Program (CACFP), and summer site sponsors may transition to At-Risk Afterschool Meals, a component of CACFP.
The Sky’s The Limit
Summer food service sites can be located wherever children congregate—at a school, library, church, camp, apartment complex, mobile home park, even an open field.
“The sky’s the limit for SSO as long as it originates from the school program,” said Dodson. “The school can work through the logistics of getting the meals there.”
This flexibility also provides an opportunity for school systems to reach children in the community outside the traditional school setting. Because transportation to meal sites can be challenging for families, school districts often run summer bus routes to provide meals.
“There’s an emphasis on literacy in our state, so summer meals could be provided with literacy initiatives to bring the two together,” said Dodson. “Libraries can also create special events to generate parent interest and foster understanding that healthy summer meals are available to their children.”
Boone pointed out that 73 counties in Georgia didn’t have Happy Helpings sites last summer, primarily in rural areas where the need is great. DECAL received state funding in 2022 to offer startup grants to organizations willing to operate as site sponsors in underserved areas.
“We plan to do the same thing this year,” said Boone. “These grants give organizations the freedom and flexibility to fill up-front needs like renting vans to deliver meals or buying big coolers. It allows us to prop up and implement sites in areas that otherwise would not have been able to do so.”
Happy Helpings sponsors often include churches, Georgia Family Connection Collaboratives, recreation departments, Boys and Girls Clubs, local nonprofits, government entities, camps, and colleges and universities.
“Our community partners know where the need is, where those pockets are, so we want to have an all-hands-on-deck approach,” said Boone. “We want these programs to be household names and for them to always be in the forefront of families’ minds. The only way we can do that is by reaching out and working with partners in our community.”
The Power of Partnerships
Last summer, 72,074 registered readers took part in summer reading programs in public libraries across Georgia. They read approximately 798,000 books and spent 15,120,954 minutes reading.
“Our main goal is to increase participation by providing more sites for families to access free meals during the summer months,” said Bush. “If all 410 libraries in Georgia were offering this service, how powerful would that be?”
Arianne Weldon, Get Georgia Reading—Campaign for Grade-Level Reading director, pointed out that not one library in Georgia served as a summer meal site in 2014—but since then, strong partnerships have led to more than 100 libraries now participating in this capacity.
“Millions of dollars allocated to reimburse these summer meals go unspent,” said Weldon. “We hope to see more communities leverage these critical resources—partnering to connect all children and families with nutritious meals as well as language- and literacy-rich, engaging environments in multiple ways.”
How to Participate
- SSO Meal Site: Contact your local school nutrition director for information about how to participate as a SSO meal service site. Operational program requirements are all managed by the local school nutrition program.
- Happy Helpings Sponsoring Organization: Nonprofit organizations sign an agreement with DECAL to operate a food service program. Sponsors are reimbursed for the number of meals served.
- Happy Helpings Meal Site: Working under a sponsoring organization, a meal site is the location where children eat their meals in a supervised setting. Meals must meet USDA meal pattern requirements. Meal service is flexible. You can choose to offer meals for a one-day event, one week, one month, or each day during the summer.
Download the Summer Meal Options for Involvement flyer.
Download the Happy Helpings fact sheet.
- Linette Dodson, GaDOE Georgia School Nutrition Director, firstname.lastname@example.org
- Cindy Kicklighter, DECAL Marketing and Outreach Manager, email@example.com
- Evan Michael Bush, GPLS Director of Youth Services, firstname.lastname@example.org