Summer food programs for low-income students expand in suburbs

As Colorado continues to expand its free summer meal program for the state’s poorest students, school districts and advocacy groups are increasingly focusing attention on suburbs that are seeing a greater concentration of low-income families.

The state has added more than 200 new sites since 2012 — many of them in suburban and rural areas. Hunger Free Colorado, which works with the Colorado Department of Education to promote the programs, expects to serve more than 1.5 million meals at 577 sites this summer.

Rising home and rental costs are forcing many low-income families out of Denver into surrounding cities like Aurora, Westminster and Englewood, putting new pressure on school districts that once educated predominantly white and middle-class families.

School districts along the Front Range, working with state and federal programs, are adjusting accordingly with summer food programs.

“Suburban sites have been growing in recent years,” said Ellie Agar, a spokeswoman for Hunger Free Colorado. “You’re seeing more need with the cost of housing.”

Colorado ranked 43rd in summer meal participation among U.S. states and the District of Columbia in an annual nutrition report card released last month, up from 44th last year. Several efforts have been launched to turn the tide, including better outreach to families who live outside of Denver and increasing the number of sites to make access easier for students.

Hundreds of students crowd the cafeteria at Westminster High School for free breakfast and lunch all summer. About 2,000 people a day are served, an uptick the district attributes in part to better marketing to low-income families. About 84 percent of students in the district northwest of Denver qualify for government-subsidized lunches, an indicator of poverty.

“We’ve doubled from last year,” said Billie Theye, assistant Director of Nutrition Services for Westminster Public Schools “The rewarding thing is just feeding the kids and knowing they have food in their bellies. We know some of them wouldn’t eat otherwise.”

Catch up on past Chalkbeat coverage of summer meal programs:

Colorado makes gains in summer meal program rankings but still ranks poorly (2015)

Free summer meals for kids, but what about parents? (2014)