“Things changed so quickly. Suddenly the schools were closed and getting meals to kids while making sure everyone was safe required creativity, flexibility, and innovation. Most importantly, it required caring enough to make sure no student would go hungry.”
Kaveri Sastry, Child Nutrition Program Associate for Project Bread, is telling us about her admiration for School Nutrition Directors (SND) and cafeteria staff.
“You want to know some essential worker superheroes who don’t get enough recognition for their amazing work? Look to your local SND and cafeteria staff.”
Kaveri’s enthusiasm for recognizing the care, hard work, and dedication exemplified by SNDs and “lunch ladies” across Massachusetts stems from her own hard work organizing this year’s annual Summer Eats Conference.
When school lets out for summer, kids lose access to a critical source of their daily nutrition — school breakfast and lunch. To fill the gap, Project Bread’s Child Nutrition Outreach Program (CNOP) and the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE) work to ensure students in Massachusetts can continue to access healthy meals through The Summer Food Service Program known as Summer Eats. Summer Eats allows kids experiencing food insecurity to have a nutritional safety net for summer.
The Summer Eats Conference, hosted by CNOP and DESE, brings together sponsors, sites, and community partners to celebrate and share best practices for improving and expanding Summer Eats.
Even while summer is still months away, much of the Conference this year included reflecting back on the early days of the pandemic and what was done to adjust. With summer remaining such an unknown at this point - Will we be able to congregate again safely? If not, will we have to deliver food? Can we do drive through pick up? Walk up? Etc. - the lessons learned from the quick adjustment required at the beginning of the pandemic continue to be useful.
At this year’s conference, attendees shared and gained an understanding of successful approaches for operating summer sites with COVID-19 safety protocols in place. Panelists for breakout sessions included summer sponsors who had innovative programs and expanded participation in 2020. In this way, participants had the opportunity to learn directly from their peers. Also shared at the conference was information about summer grant opportunities, promotional resources and signage that will be available this year through CNOP, and program updates from DESE based on the status of COVID-19 and expectations for the coming summer.
This also included sessions on best practices from the previous year for increasing engagement and outreach, with special emphasis on social media promotion. Project Bread’s own Chef Ryan talked about taking pictures while Miriam Avila, Assistant Director of Programs Communications, offered a “Social Media 101” session.
Given that in Massachusetts the pandemic resulted in high unemployment rates and the doubling of food insecurity rates, and that a study conducted by Project Bread and Children’s Health Watch found that rates of food insecurity were higher among households with children, and Black and Latinx communities, the focus on outreach and engagement is crucial. This means that the ability for kids and families to access food during the summer is of utmost importance this year, and increasing awareness of existing resources and expanding Summer Eats to new locations in underserved neighborhoods is one of the priorities for CNOP.
The importance of this conference for sharing resources to equip those passionate about increasing food access for children through Summer Eats is exemplified by the creative energy of Springfield Public Schools who sharing their recent YouTube campaign to combat the poor reputation school meals sometimes have. In a series of videos, cafeteria staff reveals how they make their meals, the nutrition considerations that go into preparation, recipes, and more. Bravo!