At half past noon Tuesday, Iris Snider opened a brown paper bag under the outdoor pavilion behind Medford’s YMCA. She reached in and pulled out a ham-and-cheese sandwich.
Beside her, friend Aidaline Cooper crunched on an apple. Snider soon picked up her apple, too, and the two munched together.
At 10 years old, Iris says she knows kids get hungry if they spend the day at the YMCA during summer. To her, the meal she’s eating is “a really good idea.”
Elsewhere in the pavilion and across the Rogue Valley and the state, other kids were also eating lunches, some at schools and others at parks.
Bethany Pitts, afterschool coordinator for the Rogue Valley YMCA, kept a watchful eye on her charges. For some of the kids who will show up from now through August, she said, those meals are their likeliest opportunity to be fed.
“It’s an unspoken thing,” she said about the potential for students to miss out on meals during the summer. “Everybody knows it’s a need, but nobody knows how to fill it.”
Since its creation in 1968, the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s summer food service program has been one way communities have tried to fill the need. In Jackson County, 24 sites offer some combination of breakfast, lunch or dinner for children through age 18.
During the academic year, school isn’t just a place where kids learn — it’s also a social space, and for many it’s the only place where they can be ensured of being fed. In summer months, research has shown, kids from “food-insecure” households are at greater risk for hospitalization and “summer slide,” or regressing in their education during months off.
School districts, as is the case with Medford and Central Point, are often the local sponsors of the food program, sometimes partnering with other agencies.
Natalie Hurd, spokeswoman for the Medford School District, said the district is reimbursed by the USDA for what it spends via contract with food service provider Sodexo.
“We don’t want any children to go hungry because there’s a summer break,” she said.
Eligibility for free meals depends on the type of site: Open sites, for example, are those located in an area where 50 percent or more of the children living in the surrounding neighborhoods are eligible for free and reduced-price lunch. All children who come there will receive a free meal, regardless of which school district they attend.
Meanwhile, at other sites, such as summer camps run by Wilderness Trails, free meals are offered only to children who qualify for free and reduced-price lunch, or whose households receive various government benefits, including Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, Temporary Assistance to Needy Families or the Food Distribution on Indian Reservations program.
Among Medford sites, parents can also buy meals at reduced cost and join their children.
Research by the No Kid Hungry organization that surveyed 900 families across three states in 2013 found that 62 percent of low-income families reported spending more on food during the summer than during the school year. Of those, 47 percent reported grocery bills that were, on average, $316 per month higher. Of families who use free or reduced-price school meals, 43 percent said they find themselves without enough food in the summer months.
Even so, Oregon’s Summer Meals website said that one of every eight children in that category — those eligible for free and reduced-price meals — participate. Cathy Brock, from the Oregon Department of Education, called the participation rate “kind of disheartening.”
Brock said the state does not keep detailed data on the demographics, such as race or ethnicity, of the participants in summer food service. Sponsors are only required to “get a general feel,” she said.
Parents can find information on specific sites, what meals are served and when, by visiting www.summerfoodoregon.org/map, by calling 2-1-1 or by texting “Food” or “Comida” to 877-877.