Indiana’s summer food program expands to meet increased needs during the pandemic

Sheridan staff prepare grab-and-go meals for students during school closures.
School staff in Sheridan, Colo., prepare grab-and-go meals for students during school closures. (Provided by the Sheridan School District)

More than 800 school and community sites across Indiana are offering summer meals this year to meet an uptick in demand as families continue to face financial difficulties amid the coronavirus.

This year, all school districts can provide free summer meals to children under 18 through a waiver that expanded the federal food program beyond low-income families to account for widespread hardship.

“Now more than ever it seems that people are counting on different resources throughout the community to provide meals and food for their families,” said Dena Bond, food service director for Indianapolis Public Schools. 

Last year, summer food programs reached less than one out of every five low-income children in Indiana who received free or reduced lunch during the school year, according to the Indiana Department of Education. But this year, some school and community officials say they have seen more families seeking food assistance as the health crisis has forced unemployment rates higher and caused additional financial instabilities. 

In the first week of IPS’ summer meals program, for example, the district handed out more than 13,000 meals, Bond said. That’s up from the 11,000 meals served last year, half of which went to students attending summer school.

In March, the U.S. Department of Agriculture released new guidelines so students could take meals to-go rather than eat them at school, parents could pick up meals for their children, and families could receive multiple meals at a time — changes that have made it easier for schools to feed students during the health crisis.

“I think that’s really led to our success of this program,” Bond said.

At Christel House, an Indianapolis charter school network where most students come from low-income families, demand has doubled from an average school year and tripled compared to a typical summer, said Michelle Estes, who runs Christel House’s food services. Some families ask to come back for extra meals. 

“They need everything,” Estes said.

Christel House provides five pre-bagged breakfasts and lunches every Friday. Estes said the biggest change in this year’s service is a lack of options. During a normal summer, students would choose their fruits and vegetables, entrees, and flavor of milk. 

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Because students now receive a week’s worth of prepackaged meals, the staff picked out students’ favorites — including chicken nuggets, pizza, yogurt, and muffins — to create the weekly menus. 

Although parents can now pick up meals to bring home to their children, several parents have told Estes that their children want to come along so they can see everyone at the school. Sometimes students want to jump out of their cars to say hi. 

Joenne Pope, senior manager of camps and programs for Indy Parks and Recreation, said she’s seen similar excitement from families when they pick up meals. Staff members operate the same locations each day, offering a dose of consistency amid uncertainty. 

The parks department only has about half as many locations as a normal summer because camps and Bible schools are closed. Still, Pope said the open sites “are hugely popular.”

Usually, Indy Parks’ summer meals program lasts seven to eight weeks, Pope said. But the parks department started serving meals when schools closed in March, and officials want to keep serving meals until students return to school buildings. 

“It is definitely different from a typical summer,” Pope said. 

Indy Parks distributed 31,540 meals from March 16 to June 10, she said. The department has also leaned into community partnerships to offer families more support. 

A partnership with local nonprofit Second Helpings produces casseroles that can serve three to four people, and a partnership with Gleaners Food Bank generates food boxes with staples such as pasta and canned goods. 

Indy Parks is also receiving $11,500 from the Verizon Foundation, which was originally intended to sponsor an outdoor summer parks event. When the event was canceled due to the coronavirus, the foundation redirected a portion of the funds to help with food insecurity.

But at some food sites, demand is beginning to lighten up as people start going back to work. It’s unclear if that’s due to people recovering financially, working parents no longer having time to pick up meals, or families relying on other resources such as food assistance cards.

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Not all schools are continuing to offer meals during the summer, either. 

The food service contract for Irvington Community Schools, a K-12 charter school, ends June 29, said Harold Allen, director of finance and operations. The school has delivered meals to hundreds of families after seeing low turnout for meal pick-ups when schools closed. Allen is working to extend the contract for three weeks until school begins again, but if that doesn’t pan out, the staff will point families to other community resources.

“We’re not going to let our families go without,” he said.

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