Maureen Berner is a School of Government faculty member
Did you know that across North Carolina, only about 12 percent of eligible kids receive free summer meals via an existing federally funded Summer Foods Program? What kind of economic impact might occur with higher participation rates in the program? This post describes early findings from a School of Government evaluation of North Carolina’s Summer Foods Program and concludes that local economies could benefit from higher participation rates.
The North Carolina Summer Foods Program, which operates in each community through a local school nutrition office or non-profit, serves as an extension of the free and reduced price breakfast and lunch program offered in schools during the school year. The program was created to address concerns that children were not being fed properly when school was out of session over the summer.
The Summer Foods Program distributes food throughout a community—not just in schools—giving children the opportunity to obtain the food almost anywhere, from neighborhood gathering places to school lunch rooms. The local sponsors are then reimbursed for every meal or snack eaten by a child (up to two a day). In areas around schools with over 50 percent participation rate in the free and reduced price program, all children in the area are eligible. In such areas, no ID is required and no paperwork needed for the children. The kids, from birth to 18 years old, just need to show up and eat a healthy meal. The administrators have to keep a count and make sure health and safety guidelines are followed.
Feeding kids is a laudable objective on its own, but early results from the evaluation show there may be a measurable economic impact as well. Local government staff have administered this program in a number of counties and acknowledge that the program overall runs at loss, or at best, breaks even. However, a lesser known fact is that most of the funds for the program are federal while most of the spending is local. According to the early results, for every $1 spent by local sponsors (governments and nonprofits) to host the program, $10 of federal funds are spent in the local community on food, jobs, and supplies. Last year, one NC urban school district spent $412,293 on its summer meals program. The federal reimbursement was $410,792. The net local cost of the program was $1,501. In this case, the ratio of local cost to federal reimbursement was 1: 274. It should be noted that these are early, limited results and have not been audited, but the same pattern is appearing in each case.
Last month, the US Department of Agriculture, which oversees the program, awarded a waiver to 11 school districts in lower income areas in North Carolina to promote the program. The waiver allows for less paperwork and higher meal reimbursement rates. There seems to be a general push from federal departments across programs to increase participation. This could present an opportunity. Local governments may want to look at underutilized federally funded programs, such as the Summer Foods Programs, as one way to provide a boost to the local economy.
The UNC School of Government is partnering with the NC Department of Public Instruction, the NC Department of Health and Human Services, the NC Commission on Volunteerism and Community Service and others to develop an online guide on these types of programs for local government leaders. For more information, contact firstname.lastname@example.org.