Lessons Learned: Summer Meals in 2021

Across Illinois, summer meal programs worked hard to fill the hunger gap created when children couldn’t access school breakfasts or lunches. There’s no doubt that the diverse challenges of the pandemic demanded creative ways to reach students facing food insecurity. While some partners tested new popular menu ideas, others collaborated with school summer enrichment programs to increase student participation. We reached out to some of our partners, and they shared their strategies and lessons learned from this summer and the previous school year.

Comments are edited for brevity and clarity.

Noble Network Charter Schools
“This summer Noble Schools provided over one million free summer meals to the entire Chicago community by utilizing the USDA pandemic waivers. We focused on enhancing the meal kits by adding additional funding to create ‘Enhanced Meals’ which included roast beef sandwiches, pizza kits, holiday meals, grocery shelf-stable items, and more. We also hosted a meal kit delivery program to ensure everyone who needed access to food was able to get it. In addition to providing enhanced meals, we partnered with minority-owned community restaurants and organizations to provide meals to support their business, the community, and provide exciting new meal options to participants. We plan to continue these partnerships as they move into in-person learning and continue to promote the exciting meal options that Noble Schools has to offer its students and community.” 

Northern Illinois Food Bank
“Northern Illinois Food Bank partnered with nearly 120 program partners this summer! Looking back on these past few months, we learned that utilizing the federal waivers allowed us to get more meals to kids and teens in our communities in ways we could have never imagined before. Some of the waivers we have used include non-congregate, meal service times, parent pick up, and location eligibility. Due to the flexibility of the waivers, we have been able to provide more assistance and resources to our program partners, ultimately strengthening our relationships to be able to provide the best program possible during this uncertain time. In turn, our partners have shown an incredible dedication to the youth in their communities and have worked arduously to adapt to the ongoing changes we have faced together this past year.”

Crete Monee School District
“Once school was out for the summer, the Crete Monee school district continued with curbside breakfast and lunch meal bags. They were distributed at 3 sites throughout our district, and parents or children 18 years of age or younger picked up meal bags by either driving or walking up. We also had students participating in summer school enrichment programs, sports, band, ROTC, drivers-ed, and theater on-site that were fed in the cafeterias. Those students were also sent home with a breakfast bag for the next morning. We served over 18,000 seamless summer meals during the summer months. A nutritious meal is important for children to learn, play, and remain active during the summer. No enrollment was necessary, and parents were able to simply show up at a meal site to pick up one bag for each child 18 years of age or younger. Our staff worked non-stop from March 2019 to August 2021. Over the summer we realized that even with the P-BET program, our students still need our foodservice programs to help supplement their households, which is something our students and parent praise us for. We received thank you cards, hand-drawn pictures, and more from our children in the community. We are happy we have the support from our sponsors ISBE, Rise and Shine, USDA, and No Kid Hungry to help make our programs successful.”

Chicago Park District
“The Chicago Park District had the honor of providing summer day camp opportunities to youth in Chicago. One year after the pandemic, as a team we are still learning to navigate challenges. The core team that works on the summer food service program are veteran staff, who have an organized system of program delivery which allowed for adaptations to be made. The programming staff did an amazing job over the 6 weeks of camp. The wellness team in the park district credits success to open lines of communication with the program staff, administration, vendors, and Illinois State Board of Education. The internal team worked through a new monitoring process (desk audits) to guarantee safety for park customers and employees. The desk audits offered the opportunity to support the program staff and ensure program regulations were being adhered to. Working closely with vendors to work through challenges such as increased cost and availability of product was stressful at times. But during it all, our goal to provide youth participants a healthy meal while at the parks was obtained.”