In just two years, the Mountain View Whisman School District has quadrupled the number of meals served to hungry kids during the summer months, going a long way toward improving the North County's dearth of free food services when schools close for summer break.
The district's "Seamless Summer" program looked a whole lot different this year, extending its operation from six weeks to eight weeks, and using food delivery trucks to expand to Rengstorff and Klein parks as well as the Mountain View Public Library. It ran from June 12 through the first week of August. Children head back to school next week.
The goal was to feed as many kids as possible throughout Mountain View, particularly the 34 percent of school district students who rely on free and reduced-price meals during the school year, according to Debbie Austin, the district's director of food services. The biggest change was bringing the food to where the children are, rather than ask families to travel across town to a designated feeding site each day, which meant kids playing at the park merely had to break off from the fun and games around noon to grab a free lunch.
At a May 18 school board meeting, Austin announced that she wanted to serve 50,000 meals by the end of summer -- more than the 39,185 meals served last summer and a big leap from the 15,000 meals served in 2015.
Austin is a woman of her word: As of Wednesday morning, Aug. 9, the district reported having dished out 60,467 summer meals, vastly improving access by delivering food to popular locales in Mountain View. That includes more than 4,700 meals served at the Mountain View library, 4,500 at Rengstorff Park and a little over 1,000 meals at Klein Park. Depending on the day, kids could choose from taco salads, bento boxes and smoked turkey sandwiches. Barbecue Tuesdays outside of the library would attract between 350 and 400 people each week, Austin said.
"We've been busy," she said. "We did as many meals in the summer each day (as) we did in the regular school year."
Santa Clara County has an unfortunate reputation when it comes to keeping needy children fed during the summer months. Among the students who qualify for free and reduced-price meals during the school year, only an estimated 16 percent pick up meals from the designated summer food sites, according to a study by California Food Policy Advocates. That translates to about 44,500 kids falling into what the group calls the "summer nutrition gap."
Trying to close that massive gap has been a top priority in recent years, and using a "mobile food delivery" model like the one Mountain View Whisman piloted this year seems to be a step in the right direction, said Cindy McCown, the vice president of community engagement and policy at Second Harvest. She said Second Harvest partnered with the district in hopes of emulating the more comprehensive and far-reaching summer lunch programs in New York, which not only meant increasing the number of sites offering food, but also putting out signs and banners to let families know where they can find a free meal for their children.
McCown hailed the district's food services staff, including chef Bob Mencimer, for making sure the meals looked and tasted appetizing, and said they did a great job adjusting the menu and including treats like frozen yogurt on particularly hot days.
"They not only made the food visually appealing, but they also made it quite festive and approachable," McCown said. "That could have been the highlight of their day."
Of the 125 places where meals are served in Santa Clara County during the summer, only 84 are open to the public and more than half shut their doors weeks before school begins. This is a far cry from the hundreds of schools that offer both breakfast and lunch during the school year, so it's no surprise some kids miss meals during the summer.
McCown said it's hard to fault school districts for not filling all the gaps during the summer, and that there's a myriad of barriers that make it tough to quash summer hunger. Compensation from the federal government doesn't cover all the costs of summer food programs, especially if school districts decide they want to emulate Mountain View Whisman and deliver food to off-site locations.
Mountain View Whisman may have found the right places to serve meals this summer, but picking the right spots is hardly an easy task. A recent study on summer food programs in Santa Clara and San Mateo counties, released in May, found that designating school campuses as meal sites is not a slam dunk, and that participation tends to plummet if there's no concurrent summer program or summer school at the same location. Districts also have to contend with families facing long travel times to get to meal sites during the workday, the stigma attached to eating free meals, and meal sites that are perceived as unwelcoming.
One of the keys to solving summer hunger is making sure multiple agencies are on board and willing to help the school district deliver meals and get the message out that kids don't have to go hungry during the summer, McCown said. Police Activities Leagues (PALs) and city parks and recreation departments have to step up and make sure summer activities coincide with meal deliveries so the success achieved in Mountain View this summer can be enjoyed elsewhere.
"I think, frankly, school districts have a lot on their shoulders," she said. "The more the community owns this, the better."
Despite the success this summer, Austin said there's still room for improvement. She said the Seamless Summer program didn't reach enough high school-aged kids -- many of whom don't show up at the park until after 2 p.m. -- meaning the district may need to adjust its hours. There are also a lot of kids who are not allowed to go to the park while their parents are at work, she said, which means the district ought to find a way to travel to apartment parking lots in order to reach more children.
As long as the district and its partner agencies have the resources to do it, Austin said she's going to keep finding ways to reach as many children as possible. She said the need is certainly there, as the number of homeless residents in Mountain View continues to increase and the high cost of living leaves so many families with little money left for groceries.
"I don't want anybody to go hungry, it doesn't make any sense," she said. "It's about taking care of our community."