A blue hard plastic lunch tray holding a roll, soup and a salad, sitting on top of a cafeteria table.
U.S. Dep. of Agriculture / Flickr

As many young D.C. residents return to school this year, they are also returning to the free and reduced meal program. Nationwide, 19.2 million school children rely on this program in order to get a balanced meal each day. This provides relief for many families, because when the school year comes to a close, the meals seem to do the same.

In 2003, the D.C. Department of Parks and Recreation (DCDPR) sought to solve child nutrition problems in the capital by creating the Free Summer Meal Program (FSMP). It was offered to all low-income residents under the age of 18. FSMP is a U.S. Department of Agriculture sponsored program in association with the D.C. Office of the State Superintendent of Education (OSSE).

“OSSE works with government partners … advocacy groups, churches; non-profit community organizations; and program sponsors,” said Victoria Holmes, an OSSE spokeswoman.

Government partners for FSMP include the Mayor, the Deputy Mayor for Education, the Deputy Mayor for Health and Human Services, DC Public Schools, DC Public Libraries, and DCDPR.

In 2013, one-third of the summer meal sponsors expanded existing services to meet the needs of families who need food in the evening, on weekends, and on holidays.

Although FSMP is now a huge success, it wasn’t always that way.

Outreach was a huge problem twelve years ago. Families didn’t know about the program and they didn’t like the name at the time, according to DCDPR Chief-of-Staff John Stokes.

To rectify the situation, DCDPR ran media campaigns to make the community aware that the resource was available. DCDPR also gave taste testing to help determine what foods worked well for kids.

“If you make food fun for kids, they really get into it,” Stokes said.

Jointly, OSSE pushed for citywide outreach efforts to market to all populations through the web, grassroots, poster distribution, paid advertising, social media, and most importantly, word of mouth.

Accessibility and proximity of site location is essential to the success of the program, explained Holmes, as it has increased opportunities for families to locate a meal site near to their home.

Providers have also learned from previous years that meal sites such as schools and recreation centers, where children are enrolled for programming, have higher meal service participation.

More than 1 million meals were served in the District during the summer of 2014, and similar numbers are expected in the 2015 assessment, according to the Food Research Action Center (FRAC). The DC Public Library alone served 6,000 meals at 11 locations this summer.

Fifty-nine percent of children eligible for free or reduced price school meals in the District are reached by the program — which is now number one in the nation, according to a June 2015 FRAC report.

“The D.C. Summer Meals Program is essential to District students, parents, and families while school is out of session,” said Victoria Holmes.

top ten FSMP programs

States, including the District, with the highest percentage of students who receive meal assistance during the school year and also request meal assistance during the summer break.  Data courtesy of the Office of the Superintendent of Education