Together we can ensure children have the food they need to grow and thrive

By Chris West, child nutrition outreach coordinator, Greater Pittsburgh Community Food Bank

Many of us remember that feeling we had on the last day of school before summer break: excitement; freedom; not being able to wait for adventures that summer will bring.

In 11 counties of southwestern Pennsylvania, more than 145,000 children qualify for free and reduced school meals, which can often include breakfast and lunch. Summer meals can weigh on a family’s budget and quickly become a costly dilemma when school ends for the summer.

That is where the Summer Food Program comes in. The Summer Food Program is a federal nutrition assistance program from the USDA that provides free meals to anyone 18 and under during the summer in areas that have a higher percentage of children who qualify for free and reduced meals. Every state has Summer Food Program sites, and hundreds of sites exist in southwestern Pennsylvania. So chances are, wherever you are reading this, there is a site near you.

Besides offering a healthy meal, thanks to partners like United Way, most sites also have fun, educational activities. These activities create a safe place for children to get meals while also engaging in fun summer adventures. As a result, children maintain their health, engage their minds and return to school in the fall ready to learn.

Last year, United Way’s fitUnited initiative, Live Well Allegheny of the Allegheny County Health Department and Let’s Move Pittsburgh of Phipps Conservatory and Botanical Gardens worked to evaluate the program and help spread the word. As a result of their collaborative efforts, a brand new free curriculum was created for 2018 Summer Food sites, offering easy tools to make the summer fun and engaging for kids.

United Way’s fitUnited initiative helps local kids understand the importance of eating healthy and living a healthy life. Having these activities available at the various sites allows us to help break the stigma that the sites are strictly for kids in need and encourage positive nutrition, healthy habits and physical activity in all kids.

Despite all the great things the Summer Food Program has to offer, it is still underutilized. In Pennsylvania, about one child uses the program for every seven who qualify for free or reduced meals.

Here are four things you can do to spread the word about summer food disparities and help families utilize the Summer Food Program:

  1. Serve meals to children at Summer Food Program sites. Sites serve up to two meals of their choice and can offer a mix of breakfast, lunch, snack or dinner. They are always looking for great community volunteers to help hand out the food to participating kids.
  2. Provide fun activities at a site. Children are looking for fun things to do over the summer, and the activities are often what draws them to a site in the first place. Once the kids are there, they’ll be getting healthy meals. United Way, Let’s Move Pittsburgh and Live Well Allegheny created this toolkit to help you design fun, educational activities.
  3. Help start up a new Summer Food Program site. Common sites include places like community centers, churches, parks, playgrounds, libraries and schools. Meal schedules are determined by the site and there is no cost to get started.
  4. Spread the word in your community by talking about the program, passing out flyers and sharing information on social media. Reaching out to groups or organizations that work directly with kids is a great way to make a big impact. United Way’s 2-1-1 is the best way to connect families with the Summer Food site closest to them.

Last summer, more than one million meals were served to children across the Food Bank’s 11-county service area. Throughout these counties, participation increased by 12 percent over the year prior. In Allegheny County, participation increased by 13 percent. With your help, we can continue to reach more children this summer, and as a result, ensure that children have the proper nutrition they need to grow and thrive.

To learn more or find a summer food site, dial United Way’s 2-1-1 line or text FOOD to 877-877. You can also email me directly at