Reaching Children in Hospitals With Summer Meals

July 26, 2016
by Caroline Cahill


The Summer Food Service Program (SFSP) is a federal program that helps ensure children have access to free meals when school is out. Each year, the USDA recognizes new, innovative practices for improving the reach and impact of SFSP and suggests community partners who might be able help. This year the focus is working within hospitals and health care centers. For some food banks, this may seem like a daunting task – questions and concerns arise: How do we establish ties with our local hospital? Hospitals employ hundreds of people, who should we contact? However, in southwest Alabama, Feeding the Gulf Coast, a Feeding America member food bank, already recognizes the best way to fight hunger is from a holistic approach, and that we need to adopt new methods to provide meals to people who were previously unreachable. Feeding the Gulf Coast is a leader among food banks for trailblazing the fight against childhood food insecurity dating back to the early 2000s. Using federal funds in a deeply red state can seem like risky business, but as it turns out, feeding kids is a topic that crosses the political aisle and provides a financially sustainable program that communities can rely on summer after summer.

Feeding the Gulf Coast sponsors over 200 SFSP sites across Alabama, Mississippi, and Florida. Two of these sites are children's hospitals: University of South Alabama (USA) Children's & Women's (Mobile, AL) and Sacred Heart Health Systems (Pensacola, FL).  Each hospital has adopted SFSP in their own way. Both sites are open to the community and both hospitals prepare the SFSP meals in their own cafeterias. Meanwhile, USA Children’s and Women’s transports the lunches to a Ronald McDonald Family Room in the children's tower and Sacred Heart provides children and patient siblings redeemable vouchers for free breakfast and lunch in the cafeteria. Both sites also occasionally offer enrichment activities, such as coloring books, fun child-friendly recipes, and puzzle games.

The practice of implementing SFSP in hospitals is brand new, and so far, the number of children we’ve been reaching at lunch has been fairly low.  However, it is important to think about the big-picture goals for establishing the SFSP/hospital partnership. It is not just about feeding kids – the goal is much bigger than that. These sites are by no means the largest and most consistently utilized SFSP sites; nevertheless, their purpose is reaching kids who previously, weren’t being reached at all.

Our goal as a food bank that helps implement SFSP is to provide nutritious, consistent meals to children over the summer. A child may already be enrolled in a Boys & Girls Club summer camp but may miss a few days because their sibling or cousin is a patient at the hospital. Now, through this innovative partnership, when the child is at the hospital they continue to receive free lunches. This venture is a way for hospitals – places that mend bones, suture cuts and care for the young and old alike – to show that food is medicine and it’s important for a healthy, thriving child. And possibly most importantly, community members can begin to recognize hospitals as safe and caring places, especially if in the past these individuals or families have been medically disenfranchised due to their socio-economic status, job status or even other factors. This is one partnership where the community impact can be much larger, and worth much more, than what can be documented through numbers on a tally sheet.

*Caroline Cahill is a member of the fifth Child Hunger Corps at Feeding America Feeding Gulf Coast in Theodore, AL.

The Child Hunger Corps is a national service program designed to increase the capacity and capability of food banks to execute programs targeted towards the alleviation of child hunger. The objective of the program is to increase the number of nutritious snacks and meals served to children in need in local communities around the country. The Child Hunger Corps initiative is sponsored by the ConAgra Foods Foundation.

In August 2015, the fifth cohort of nine new Corps members were placed at Feeding America member food banks, bringing the current total to 39 Child Hunger Corps members working at food banks across the country.