“Can I have another bowl of cereal?”
The shy boy was one that regularly asked for seconds at breakfast, and I suspected he didn’t eat dinner regularly at his house. He was a camper at my small YMCA day camp in Northeast Georgia. We struggle financially, as do our campers’ parents, and the fees we charge only cover staffing and program costs.
Camp is a place that kids can go to have fun, make friends, challenge themselves, and gain confidence and independence. For some kids, though, camp is also a place where they literally get fed during the summer months. Thanks to the Child Nutrition Act, we are able to provide our campers with both breakfast and lunch; therefore, I was able to give the quiet boy a second bowl of cereal and fill his growling belly.
For over five years, our camp has participated in the Summer Food Service Program, which is an offshoot of the Child Nutrition Act. It is a mirror of the program that provides meals at public schools. The program pays for each meal served at a set reimbursement rate for eligible kids.
Originally signed into federal law in 1966, the Child Nutrition Act was created to help “safeguard the health and nutrition of the nation’s children.” An amendment in 1968 added summer camps, along with day care centers, to the law. Now, churches and other nonprofits take part in handing out meals to kids through this program. Sometimes the program is as simple as a sack lunch in a park to which the child walks, while other programs are like ours — fully functioning day camps that offer meals as part of the program day.
In Georgia, the Summer Food Service Program is administered by Bright from the Start, a part of the Department of Early Care and Learning, which oversees childcare centers and the state’s pre-K program. Working with two government agencies brings with it a copious amount of paperwork and regulations, but the extra work is worth it. For a budget-strapped camp, it gives the chance to offer meals to your campers that you might not otherwise be able to afford. For your campers, it ensures they will be getting two nutritious meals a day — something they may not get at home regularly. And for your parents, it alleviates the need to get their children fed and a lunch made before heading out the door to work and camp.
What to Know
How Does It Work?
Once you have been approved to sponsor a program, the person in charge of overseeing it will have to make sure the staff has been properly trained, the menu meets the nutritional requirements, and the food service is set up correctly.
We use the local school system to provide our meals with a menu we choose. In the spring, I meet with the nutritionist and we work out a menu to include proper serving amounts of grains, proteins, fruits, and vegetables required by the overseeing agency. Breakfast ranges from cereal with fruit to specially packaged pancakes that can be microwaved individually. For lunch, we serve hamburgers, pizza, or turkey and cheese sandwiches, all accompanied by fresh fruit and milk.
Field trips have to be carefully planned to ensure that lunch is somewhat portable. We do all our field trips on Fridays, and we plan ahead to provide sandwiches on those days, along with whole-grain chips and easy-to-eat vegetables like carrot sticks. It’s never a good idea to go to a waterpark when your lunch for the day is ravioli!
The school system employees prepare lunch every day and deliver it to all three of our sites. Since breakfast is either cold foods or meals that can be microwaved, they also deliver breakfast for the next day. Your staff will have to check that the food is in good condition and at the right temperatures before they sign the delivery ticket.
Meals can be served as a unit (like a sack lunch) or cafeteria style in a system called “offer versus serve.” At our camp, we use the “offer” method, which means staff members offer each item to each child, and the child can accept it or not. They can only turn down so many items. The program’s rules also dictate that every child must be offered milk. Of course, like every camp, we have our own rules about how much a child must eat minimally to be ready for the afternoon activities. In other words: “no fruit, no pool.”
Furthermore, we use a “share table” where kids can put an unopened food item on the table. Other kids wanting seconds of just that item, like crackers or milk, can take it off the share table, which reduces food waste.
Training staff is critical because they are your frontline folks making sure all the rules are met properly. Every three years, representatives of the state agency running the program will visit your site, much the same way ACA standards visitors come to assess compliance to accreditation standards. The visitor checks to make sure food is being served properly, menus are followed, paperwork is filled out correctly, and antidiscrimination tools are in place. And just like with ACA, if your staff is not performing correctly, there are consequences, such as meals not being counted or the need for additional training. At worst, you could be financially liable for meals already reimbursed if the visitor feels you haven’t been claiming meals properly all summer.
When kids come through the line, the site director makes a tic mark