Thousands of CMS students get free meals in school. So what happens in the summer?

Kay Carter, CEO of Second Harvest Food Bank, speaks to donors on the last day of school to thank them for their gifts toward the food bank's summer programs.
Kay Carter, CEO of Second Harvest Food Bank, speaks to donors on the last day of school to thank them for their gifts toward the food bank's summer programs.

Thousands of students in Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools rely on free and reduced meals during the school year. But with classes out, only 20 percent of those children get the meals over the summer.

“It just turns a tremendous corner for these families, because the school meals they’ve been depending on, those breakfast meals and those lunch meals, aren’t there anymore,” said Kay Carter, CEO of Second Harvest Food Bank. “The stresses that those families were under are just multiplying once summer rolls around.”

The childhood food insecurity rate in Mecklenburg County — the number of children without reliable access to food — was about 20 percent in 2015. In 2014, 31 percent of children in the county were recipients of SNAP, the program formerly known as food stamps. That's more than double the percentage in Wake County.

CMS reported in the 2012-13 school year, 57 percent of its students were eligible for free and reduced lunch, up from 51 percent in 2009-10. Over 70 percent of eligible students receive and rely on these meals, according to research by the Southeastern University Consortium.

The district has stepped in to ensure students are able to receive breakfast and lunch once school ends. With the Summer Food Service Program, funded by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, children ages 1-18 can receive breakfast and lunch for free. The school district is reimbursed from USDA for the cost.

The summer meals are provided through 53 hot meal sites, which offer breakfast and lunch in a setup that's like what students see at school with a similar menu — chicken sandwiches, cheese dippers, pizza and other items — all meeting federal nutritional guidelines.

The program also offers an express lunch option if students are not able to go to hot meal sites, which are based at schools. That program offers lunch at various community areas, including apartment complexes and churches.

But most eligible children don't receive free meals over the summer because of lack of transportation, lack of awareness or other summer plans.

Katie Blythe is a McKinney-Vento social worker, meaning she works with families who are homeless or in housing crises at Ashley Park Pre K-8 School. In 2009, 94 percent of Ashley Park students qualified for free and reduced lunch.

“When they’re at school, we know they’re covered from the time they walk in up until the time they leave,” Blythe said. “So that’s with their food, (or) if they come in and they need some shoes or something.”

When the students are out of school, that can change. Blythe said one of the reasons for low attendance to summer sites could be that many students attend summer camps that provide meals, or they may spend summers with other family members who can provide those meals for them.

Food stamps and food pantries also help the need, and Blythe said she makes referrals to Loaves & Fishes, a food pantry that provides a week’s worth of food for families. Visits are limited to eight a year, restrictions that can be challenging.

“We try to stress that to our families, like, ‘OK, you’re on number four right now, just so you know,’” she said. “But there’s challenge in that as well, because you want the resources to be available to everybody, but then you have to start limiting the amount of time each person can go to make sure they’re reaching as many people as they can.”

CMS has been providing summer meal services for over 30 years, said Cathy Beam, executive director of nutrition services at CMS. In 2013, the program served over 350,00 students, a number that grew to over 395,000 last year.

The district began the Mobile Meals Program in 2015 in an effort to expand their service, allowing them to deliver lunches to neighborhoods and students who may not have the opportunity to go to a hot meal site. They delivered 8,183 meals the first year, but last summer they almost tripled that amount.

Despite the growth, Beam said many still aren't aware of the program.

Another challenge is the stigma of families receiving assistance for meals, Blythe said.

There are also about three weeks during the summer when CMS doesn't provide meals. That's because of the time needed to transition the program, Beam said.

Second Harvest Food Bank partners with CMS to help fill those gaps. The food bank sends home backpacks with ready-to-eat food on Fridays to help meet needs over the weekends, and sometimes sends double backpacks on the last day of school, Carter said.

Second Harvest also offers mobile pantries with fresh foods, meat and dairy for families when school is in session. Depending on the school, the food bank can continue this program in the summer.

“We know we’re not feeding every child that needs our help. But every child we are feeding, that’s a win,” Carter said.

Leah Asmelash: 704-358-5590; @asmeleah