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WASHINGTON, DC

It hasn't happened in Wisconsin yet, but the idea of serving free meals to low income children at farmer's markets during the summer is being floated in national circles.

Already in place within Wisconsin is a Summer Food Service Program funded by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. During 2015, that program provided served 2.8 million meals at 872 sites sponsored by 208 different organizations, according to a report by Amy Kolano, who is the SFSP coordinator for the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction. The 2015 total of servings across the United States in the summer meal program for children was about 200 million.

Kolano is not aware of any summer farmer's markets in the state where those meals are being provided. The idea was discussed by the Beloit School District, but that there has not been any followup activity.

National initiative

Promoting the idea of having a summer meals program at farmer's markets was the topic of a recent conference call sponsored by the Food Research and Action Center, which is a national nonprofit anti-hunger organization. It advocates on behalf of food stamps, the Women, Infants and Children program and other food and nutritional programs conducted by public and private entities.

FRAC is suggesting the introduction of summer meals at farmer's markets as an extension of the existing Farm to School food programs and as a way to embellish farmer's markets in two ways. These would be the inclusion of locally-grown fresh produce in those meals and the opportunity for farmer's market vendors to sell items that would be used in preparing those meals.

During the school year, more than 26 million children per day consume a lunch at school with about one-half of them receiving it for free or at a reduced cost due to low household income, FRAC pointed out. With summer being the peak time for fresh produce, it is promoting consumption of that food through summer meal programs staged at or in conjunction with farmer's markets.

Conference call reports

The conference call presenters included speakers from various supplementary meal programs in Kentucky, Arizona, Maryland and Massachusetts. Only the program in Kentucky was described as having some direct link with a farmer's market.

That Kentucky program is carried out in a relatively low income county in the eastern part of the state in collaboration with an area food system collaborative. With input from the school district nutritionist, fresh produce is purchased from local farmer's market vendors and is processed in a food trailer to create a meal.

During the summer of 2015, that program was offered two days per week and served up to 45 children per day for a total of 1,000 meals for the season. Some of the meal recipients paid up to $1.50 for it. Later in the summer, the program was extended to the high school's football players who were beginning practice for the season.

Maryland and Arizona

In Maryland, 23 of the state's 24 school districts are offering a summer meals program through their own facilities. Nearly 3 million meals were served in that manner during the summer of 2014.

For a Farm to School local food venture begun in 2008, school districts in Maryland spent $22 million for the purchase of locally grown and procured foods in 2014. To have farmer's markets as a meal serving site during the summer would require more funding and a mobile unit in which to prepare food purchased at the farmer's markets, according to the conference call presenter from the Maryland department of education.

In Arizona, the Litchfield school district (grades kindergarten to 8) to the west of Phoenix has had a Farm to School program with large area farms for 15 years. It provides about 8,000 meals per day during the school year and about 3,000 per day in its summer feeding program, which is also available to whole families for a fee.

Carrots of several colors, corn and artichokes are among the locally grown foods that are used in meal programs, which are promoted with videos, a website and signs. Participants are offered a taste test of the items to be included in the meals.

Report from Boston

In Boston, the use of locally grown fresh produce in summer meal programs is aligned with education on eating habits, the source of foods, and existing child nutrition efforts. Experiences with those meal programs are sought for sharing in an electronic newsletter.

The presenter from Boston is pleased with the involvement of both private and public sector sponsors, including the Master Gardeners organization, for the summer meals program. She was aware of similar efforts from Vermont to Florida and invited interested persons to check the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Farm to Summer tab that is readily available on online search engines.

Summer sponsorships

Whether at a farmer's market or not, the Summer Food Service Program is open to sponsors who will be reimbursed through the federal funding. The amount of the reimbursement is based on the number and type of meals served and, in some cases, the family income status of the child being served.

Entities which are eligible to apply for the summer meals program are public and nonprofit private schools and summer camps; units of local, municipal, state or tribal governments; private nonprofit organizations; and public or private colleges or universities currently enrolled in the National Youth Sports and Pre-college programs.

Starting in March, online applications will be available at www.fns.usda.gov/sfsp/summer-food-service-program-sfsp. The federal deadline for applications is June 15.

For information in Wisconsin, call Amy Kolano at 608-266-7124, or send an email to amy.kolano@dpi.wi.gov.

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