“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 on a form to make sure every child is properly counted. Each part of the meal must be measured out accurately so the child gets the correct amount and to ensure you are not wasting food. A certain number of second meals are also allowed to be claimed, and these are noted on the form as well. At the end of the month, the person in charge adds up all the meals that have been served and files for reimbursement electronically.

One of the parts of the program that is essential to get right is the communication with your food vendor to make sure you are getting the proper amount of meals. You only get reimbursed for meals served, so if you order too many, you will be paying for meals the kids are not eating. Additionally, the food service vendor will need to know if the food is arriving at the proper temperature and, most importantly, if the kids like it. It doesn’t do any good to offer nutritious food if kids won’t eat it. We find each summer we have to make adjustments to the menu, such as changing the kind of fruit we offer or switching from chicken sandwiches to sloppy joes because of taste preferences.

Steps to Follow

How Do You Get Involved?

  1. Contact the agency that administers the nutrition program in your state and find out what their application process is. In Georgia, new applicants must undergo a two-day training session that outlines the program goals, the application process, administering the program, and how to file a claim for reimbursement. To be fully prepared, it is best to begin the process in December or January.
  2. After training, the program contact fills out the application online. This is a rather lengthy application and includes proof of need, a budget, and a management plan. The management plan details exactly who will be responsible for ordering the food, serving the meals, and administering the program. It also goes over how records will be kept and where they will be stored. The budget, too, is quite detailed, noting how much you expect to spend on staffing, kitchen equipment, and food. Allow a few weeks to get it all done correctly. The agency overseeing the nutrition program will have to approve the application, and then you are ready to move into the nitty-gritty of running the food program.
  3. Meet with food vendors or caterers to make sure they understand the meal requirements. A brief conversation at a local health fair with the school nutritionist led to the partnership between the school system and our camp. Our school system had already taken part in the food program independently the year before, so the nutritionist was already well-versed in the details of the requirements and even had suggestions for bettering our menu. She was prepared to train her staff on their part of the food program requirements.
  4. Train staff on properly serving and documenting meals. It is best to train all your staff in meal service, just in case your site director is out. We found this out the hard way when our unannounced visit just happened to be on a day when the trained staff member was on vacation. The person running the meal that day didn’t properly document the meal delivery or service, and we faced quite a mountain of paperwork correcting the problem. Plus, we had to redo our training in the middle of a busy summer.
  5. Set up a system to maintain your paperwork; then, most fun of all, feed the kids!

Things to Remember

  • Only kids that meet the income requirements are eligible. For some camps, this may mean getting income eligibility statements from each family. My camp is located in an area where all the schools are Title I schools, so that makes all our children and any counselor under eighteen eligible. (Title I is a federally funded educational program established to provide extra resources to schools and school districts with the highest concentration of poverty.)
  • The program is a reimbursement program, which means the camp will have to pay the cost up front. You will also have to budget correctly because the reimbursement rates are set by the federal government; if you serve a meal that costs you $4.00, you will only get reimbursed $2.75.
  • There will be some costs in running a food program that are not covered by the reimbursement, so you will need to budget for this. Some of these costs include staffing, kitchen equipment, and the administrator’s time.
  • The key to success is having one person in charge of running the program and maintaining the paperwork. Usually, a detail-oriented person who loves checklists and three-ring binders is perfect for this! If you are a summer camp serving kids facing poverty issues, the Summer Food Service Program is a great option for you. It takes federal dollars and allows you to use them to better your neighborhood. It allows you to feed the kids in your care so they are never hungry at camp. And, when kids are full and happy, they can focus on what camp is really for . . . fun and friends!

Get Involved in Your Area
States manage child nutrition programs. To participate or learn more, contact your state agency. Information is at www.fns.usda.gov/cnd/Contacts/StateDirectory.htm. Visit the federal Summer Food Service Program homepage at www.summerfood.usda.gov.

Robin Dake is the CEO of the Toccoa-Stephens County YMCA in Northeast Georgia and has been in camping for almost twenty years. She holds a journalism degree from the University of Georgia.

Originally published in the 2013 March/April Camping Magazine.