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More than 500,000 Michigan kids could eat free this summer. Why aren’t they?

Jun 10, 2014

Credit Tim Lauer / Flickr CC / HTTP://J.MP/1SPGCL0

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Update 10:23 a.m

After reading this story, Bryan Van Dorn from the State Department of Education offered to help any interested sites through the application process. His number is 517-373-0107 and his email is vandornb1@michigan.gov.

Tuesday June 10, 2014, 1:48 p.m.

For every eight kids who could get a free or reduced-price lunch during the school year in Michigan, only one of those kids gets fed over the summer by a similar program.

That means more than 500,000 kids around the state who needed food during the school year didn’t get access to the same program over the summer

The school lunch program does make food available over the summer for kids, and they want more families taking part. This year more than 1,300 places across the state will run a “meet up and eat up” program. All together, the program serves around 68,000 kids a day.

Not every school district or town has one of these programs, but most could if they wanted to. The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) funds the summer food program. They want to see more communities applying for the program. 

Although 1,300 sites seems like a lot of places to offer summer food, some kids can't take advantage of the program because of problems with transportation or a safe route to the sites. To get around this, the USDA is experimenting with just giving money to low-income parents to buy food over the summer. That WIC program is still in a pilot phase; it will serve a few thousand people in Detroit this year.

For now, families interested in summer food programs need to find a way to one of the "meet up and eat up" sites. 

Food is waiting, if you can get there

Michelle Dunn runs a "meet up and eat up" program in Addison. “Some people still don’t believe it's free,” she says. “They don't believe you can just go in.” Dunn wishes more people would just walk in. She thinks many don’t know there’s food waiting for them.

Families interested in summer food need to know each food site is different. Not all sites offer food all summer long. Each site keeps different hours, and some may offer other activities along with summer food. It makes sense to get details about a local site, but in general:

  • Sites are open Monday through Friday.
  • Finding a site should be easier this year. A new text service lets anybody text FOOD to 877-877 and get a message back with five nearby food sites. People can get the same information with a call to 2-1-1, the United Way’s information line.
  • Most “meet up and eat up” sites offer lunch. Some provide breakfast and snacks, and a few offer dinners. Usually the places food is served are schools, community centers, or churches. At almost all of these sites, there’s no sign-up and no special guidelines. Any kid under age 18 can eat for free.
  • As mentioned above, getting to a food site might not be easy. If transportation is an issue, a call to a food site is probably a good idea. To make getting to sites less of an issue, some groups offer lunches at parks and other places where kids naturally get together in the summer. 

If you want more summer food in your community

Several counties in Michigan, places like Oscoda and Gratiot for example, don’t have any “meet up and eat up” programs. Other counties only have one program, or a program that runs for only a few weeks. There are things families and interested community members can do to start a program, even for this summer.*

If you’re in need of emergency food: Call 2-1-1 for organizations that can help.

If your area needs more summer food for kids: If you want to see a “meet up and eat up” program in your area, call your mayor, city council member, or state representative. People who run summer feeding programs also say talking to the local school district is a good idea.

If you want to start a program in your area: The number of summer food sites in Michigan increased by more than 10% last year, but there is still room for more. Carl Merkle runs food sites in the summer for the Warren school district and says places that want to start a program should call a program nearby for help getting started. The state has a map of all the summer feeding programs.  Like many of the people who run these programs around the state, Merkle said he’s happy to help places nearby figure out how to start a summer food program.

*Clarification: This post was changed to reflect new information that interested people can attempt to get a summer feeding site started this year with the help of the state. An earlier version of this post misspelled that official's name.