As school nutrition professionals, we know many of our students rely on the school breakfasts, lunches, snacks, and dinners we prepare throughout the school year. When winter break or summer vacation rolls around, our students still need the nutrition we provide but they may not have access.
So when we saw one of our Partners for Breakfast in the Classroom-funded districts Tweeting about their summer meals program, we wanted to know more. We reached out and spoke with Bernice Tukes, site support manager at Bibb County Schools in Georgia to find out why serving summer meals is so important.
Hunger doesn’t take a vacation
Bernice Tukes has worked in school nutrition for 27 years, first taking a position as a cashier and then working her way up to site support manager, a position she currently holds and which keeps her busy overseeing fifteen schools. After seeing summer meals in action in Bibb County for six years, Tukes says the need is real and ever-present.
“Parents send their children to school every day during the school year where they get that breakfast and lunch; they might not get much to eat for dinner, but they have that nutritious breakfast to look forward to, to get them moving. Once school is out, parents still have to work, and worry about finding the kids breakfast and lunch. It’s a heartbreaking process.”
The goal is to reach as many children as possible during the six weeks Bibb County serves summer meals. Lunches are prepared in a central kitchen and then delivered to sites, or picked up by community partners to be distributed elsewhere. By designating a variety of sites, and utilizing a mobile delivery bus, the Bibb County summer meals program looks to maximize awareness and access for local children.
“We have a bus that runs to six different sites in the community, and three trucks that cover other sites,” said Tukes. “We partner with the recreation department, churches; this year we partnered with the Mulberry Street Market. We’re in our second year working with the library. We did a kickoff with the Washington Library in June; the connection was getting kids to read, and also letting [families] know we would be serving meals.”
Summer Meals are Food for Thought
The link between nutrition and learning is well-documented. We’ve all read stories about the summer learning gap—a gap made even wider by lack of nutrition.
“With summer meals we try to step in and continue that nutrition process, to fill that void during the summer,” explained Tukes. “Once school ends, some kids tend not to receive meals, and that affects their learning process. Summer meals helps to continue that learning process by putting food into the body to provide fuel so the brain can continue to work. That’s something [Director] Dr. Long really does stress.”
Whether breakfast, or lunch—or both—is served depends on the location, says Tukes.
“We serve a variety, and it depends on the area. Schools that have summer school going on will have breakfast and lunch there, and they do breakfast and lunch with the recreation department. If someone has a camp or vacation bible school, something that runs to late afternoon, we are able to meet those needs as well.”
Bernice’s Best Practices for Summer Meals
With more than 25 years of school nutrition experience, and six running school meals, we had to know—what are Tuke’s tips for running a summer meal program?
“First, look at where your need is,” said Tukes. “For families who can’t quite make ends meet when school is out, there is a need. Who are those kids? Where are they? Identify those locations.
“The next thing is to put it out there in the media! I didn’t do quite as much television this year, but I stayed in the media. Whenever you can, get on! You have to promote your program so people know about it.
“Third, find yourself some good partners. Since I’ve been in the program it’s like we’re family; every year our partners sign up and they know we can provide for that need. Find good partnerships in the community, and regular volunteers.
“Finally, watch costs. You have to provide a nutritious meal, and you have to know what you can afford to offer. We don’t do hot meals, but we do salads once a week, we do wraps, we do ham and turkey sandwiches; all of these are fulfilling, nutritious meals, with fruits and vegetables. You have to offer variety. I usually do a two-week cycle menu. It was more beneficial for us to do everything cold so it could go onto our refrigerated trunk to go out. We were able to package it so each individual child receives a reimbursable meal that is not missing any components.”