GILBERT, AZ — School is letting out for children across the Valley, and that means summer meal programs are set to begin.
Under the Summer Food Service Program, which is federally funded, anyone 18 and younger can get a meal at participating sites across the Valley. You do not need to register ahead of time, and you don't need to show proof of income. Your child also doesn't need to attend a school in the district they are picking up from.
If you go to azhealthzone.org, you can type in your zip code and use the interactive map to see the locations and available times closest to you.
You can also text the word "food" or "comida" to 877-877 if you cannot find a site in your area.
Districts, like Gilbert Public Schools, are preparing to hand out food all summer long.
School Nutrition Specialist Natalie Tenney says in February 2020, Gilbert Public Schools served about 46,000 breakfasts district-wide. In February 2021, that number jumped to 102,000. Under the USDA's school nutrition waiver, school meals have been free to all students since the start of the pandemic. The USDA recently extended the waiver to continue throughout the 2021-2022 school year. But Tenney says the number of students choosing to attend breakfast before class every day proves just how great the need is.
“If you want to gauge the need in the community, I feel like breakfast is a better tool," she said. "Because at lunch they’re a captive audience. They’re already at school. They’re already there. But breakfast, you have to make an effort to get up earlier, get dropped off earlier, come down to the cafeteria instead of just waltzing in one minute before class and sitting in your desk."
Tenney says she believes the free meal program has taken some stress away from the children they serve.
“Sometimes little kids would come in with lunch, but it would just be a handful of Lucky Charms in a baggy, and they would have to watch the other kids around them eating a full balanced meal with grains, proteins, veggies knowing that they don’t have lunch money," Tenney said. "Maybe they’re afraid to go into the cafeteria, approach the manager and say, 'I’m hungry. I don’t have anything to eat.' It just takes all that stigma away."
GPS has four locations that will serve as summer meal pickup locations starting June 1: Greenfield Junior High, Desert Ridge Junior High, Highland Junior High, and Mesquite Junior High. Sites will be open 7:30- 9:30 a.m., Monday through Friday.
According to Feeding America, 42 million people may experience food insecurity this year. That's a slight improvement from projections in 2020. But racial disparities that existed before the pandemic remain, with 21% of Black individuals struggling compared to 11% of white.