Getting Creative to Tackle the Summer Meal Gap

Design Impact
November 1, 2016

As a graphic designer by training, I was taught that creativity can inspire innovation. This summer, I was able to see first-hand how creativity, especially when combined with deep community input, can unlock new solutions to problems — even complicated social issues like hunger.

Like many cities, Cincinnati struggles with attracting kids to their summer meal sites. Only 1 out of 10 kids who are eligible for free and reduced-price lunch get food from summer meal sites. This past summer our organization, Design Impact (DI), was approached by Freestore Foodbank in Cincinnati, which had recently received a Hunger-Free Summer Classic grant from the ConAgra Foods Foundation, to find new and innovative ways to tackle the summer meal gap.

As a social innovation nonprofit, DI approached this challenge using a unique blend of community voice, creativity, and the design thinking process. We centered our work around stakeholders and families as experts, brainstorming ideas with students, parents, and community summer feeding sponsors. After the top concepts were taken back to families for feedback, we landed on two concepts to test this summer: Culinary Camp, a cooking camp for kids, and Unpack’d, a mobile pop-up meal site.

Culinary Camp was created to attract more kids to summer meal sites through fun, hands-on cooking classes. After eight sessions, it was clear that Culinary Camp was a hit. Throughout June and July, we fed over 260 kids; surveys showed that we drastically improved their attitudes about cooking and exposed them to new, healthy options that they wanted to cook again with their families. We were also able to recruit two teen volunteers, who not only played a major role in encouraging and motivating the kids, but were also able to receive free lunch and gain valuable work experience.

Meanwhile, Unpack’d was designed to reach kids who weren’t visiting summer meal coming to them. The setup was simple: a pop-up tent and table, music and a cooler of sandwiches and fruit, all wrapped in eye-catching branding. Despite the brutal humidity, rain and heat, kids came out in droves to each location. All in all, we distributed every meal that had been ordered for the day: a total of 245 lunches in three hours over three days across two different neighborhoods.

After piloting both concepts, we walked away with several learnings. Here are three key takeaways:

  1. Create opportunities for empowerment: By offering kids the ability to choose their meals, and even the chance to lead parts of the program, kids were more likely to be excited and engaged. Better yet, they often came back and brought friends.
  2. Work with the community: By generating and vetting ideas with the families and stakeholders, we had buy-in from the beginning. These community members were key to spreading the word once the pilots were up and running. Fliers helped, as did collaborating with existing summer hubs.
  3. Know your audience: Programs aren’t often age-relevant to kids, but Unpack’d and Culinary Camp met kids where they were. Unpack’d was popular in part simply because it was around when kids needed it; most kids don’t wake up until noon, but meal sites are typically closed by 1 pm. Creating a fun environment through music, activities and playful branding also helped battle stigma.

Our next steps are to explore how to sustainably scale these two ideas, and bring them to other neighborhoods. No matter what the solutions look like though, we know families will be at the design table with us.

About Hunger-Free Summer Hubs
The Hunger-Free Summer Hubs is a three-year pilot funded by the ConAgra Foods Foundation that supports food banks’ long-term, community collaborative efforts toward summer program planning, operation and evaluation. The overall project goals are for food banks to strategically partner with community organizations to increase access to meals for children and their families during the summer months; and increase participation by eligible children in the national Summer Food Service Program (SFSP).


Michelle Stawicki

*Michelle Stawicki is the social innovation specialist at Design Impact.

**Photos courtesy of Design Impact.