By Sarah Glenn
POCATELLO â€“Â In 2001, the Summer Food Service Program humbly began with two lunch ladies taking food over to Alameda Park in their cars.
â€śAfter three days of them getting bombarded, we taught them how to drive a truck,â€ť said Tom Wilson, Food Service Coordinator for Pocatello/Chubbuck District 25.
Over the past 14 years, the free lunch program for kids has exploded into a wildly popular ritual for hundreds of local families. It now employs 22 people who serve thousands of lunches daily at eight different parks.
Since its first day on Monday, the federally-funded program has served more than 4,778 meals. Last summer, the program served more than 90,000 meals throughout the course of the summer. In 2010, the number of meals served reached its peak at about 140,000.
The USDA program reimburses providers who serve healthy meals to children and teens ages 18 and under in low-income areas. The district carefully tracks how many meals are served because that is what determines the amount they are reimbursed for. According to the program website, the average reimbursement for lunch is $3.47 per meal. Parents can purchase a meal at one of the Pocatello sites for $3. Open sites must operate in low-income areas where at least half of the children come from families with incomes at or below 185 percent of the federal poverty level, making them eligible for free and reduced-price school meals. Congress appropriated $398 million for the program in 2012.
Wilson spends his summers wandering around one of the eight local parks where lunch is served daily, seeing what is working well and what needs improvement. And with the terms of the USDA grant that funds the food, the district has the latitude to make a few adjustments as needed.
The nutrition guidelines for the summer food are more relaxed than those that govern in-school meals, giving organizers more freedom when it comes to calories and content.
â€śThey figure that the kids are going to be running and playing and working off those calories if they are at a park,â€ť Wilson said. â€śSo they are not so restrictive about it.â€ť
As long as a meal includes milk, a meat/meat product, a grain and two servings of fruit or vegetables it can be on the summer menu. Juice counts as a serving of fruit. For example, the corn dog fulfills two of those requirements by providing a meat product and a grain at the same time. Add some celery sticks and a drink and the nutritional requirements of the USDA grant have been met.
This year, the district decided to add the pizza stuffwich, a popular item during the school year. With every meal counted and tracked meticulously, so far the change has been a good one.
Wilson remembers adding hotcakes and sausages to the menu last year and the lessons learned from that switch.
â€śIt worked out for about two weeks then died,â€ť Wilson said. â€śSo we went back to the ever-popular corn dog.â€ť
While the menus are adjustable, Wilson feels they have found the perfect recipe when it comes to locations and doesnâ€™t see that changing any time soon.
â€śThe last major change we had was when we moved from Constitution Park to Ross Park,â€ť Wilson said.
With thousands of sites operating across the United States, visit this USDA websiteÂ to search for a site anywhere.
Here’s a link to the 2015 menu.
Specifics on the nutritional requirements for summer lunch programs:
- Fruit or vegetable juice must be full-strength.
- Breads and grains must be made from whole-grain or enriched meal or flour. Cereal must be whole-grain or enriched or fortified.
- A serving consists of the edible portion of cooked lean meat or poultry or fish.
- Nuts and seeds may meet only one-half of the total meat/meat alternate serving and must be combined with another meat/meat alternate to fulfill the lunch or supper requirement.
- Yogurt may be plain or flavored, unsweetened or sweetened.