If You Can't Change Your Soil, Change Your Crop
Wow, just like that my 9 weeks at GardenShare are up! Time really flies when you’re working on projects that you’re genuinely interested in. This summer I was tasked with figuring out what exactly is happening with summer meals. As I’ve talked about in my previous blog posts, securing affordable (or free) food for children in the summer can be a major stressor for families that have children who participate in – as well as those families who are eligible for participation but do not utilize – free and reduced price meal programs during the school year. The school food supply is essentially cut off each year in June, and families are frequently left with no comparable programs or real viable solutions. One option is the standard meal program that typically comes to mind when we talk about summer meals: children show up to a school or another meeting place each day to receive a prepared breakfast and/or lunch to eat on site that the site sponsors are completely reimbursed for the cost of the meals under USDA’s Summer Food Service Program.
GardenShare is all about helping to find sustainable solutions to food related issues and, when I first started researching, these programs seemed like the best solution. Not only do they follow a similar model to the school meals children are already used to receiving, but schools (at least the schools I was familiar with) often offer summer recreation programs, creating spaces where there are high concentration of kids that can be served meals. Upon first consideration, these meals seemed like a simple solution – target kids where they already gather and offer food at no cost to the site sponsor. However, after doing a lot of research on the Summer Food Service Program and interviewing some key informants, I found the program started losing a lot of its appeal as a potential pathway for St. Lawrence County (SLC) to take to feed more children in the summer. Although these programs – and other similar programs – work well for other parts of the state and country, they just don’t work as well up in SLC. As I’m sure you already know, the North Country – and SLC in general – is a unique place and that means there are unique barriers that require unique solutions. Although there SFSP has a lot of good things going for it, it depends on a lot of factors that just aren’t occurring consistently, if at all in SLC. In SLC, only a few schools operate summer school programs and there are very few summer rec programs available for children – and fewer that take place in a space that would be suitable and eligible for serving meals. Few natural gathering spaces for children coupled with transportation barriers means that SFSP in SLC are already facing challenges that other areas don’t have to worry about. Additionally, although meals themselves are reimbursable, many sites there is an additional cost of labor to consider – who will be preparing and serving the meals, who will run the activities, and who will coordinate the program itself. And it’s hard to justify these costs to run a site when there’s no guarantee of consistency of participation. These hesitations were confirmed to be real barriers after interviewing the sponsor for the Ogdensburg SFSP sites, who was volunteering a lot of her time to supervise sites and food preparation. With no real way to predict how many kids they would see at each site each day, there was a lot of food, time, and money used to make a very small and unpredictable impact.
With all of this in mind, I began to spend less time thinking about how we could expand the Summer Food Service Program into SLC and a lot more time thinking about the many complexities that need to be considered to determine sustainable solutions; one size hardly ever fits all and definitely not when it comes to a place as unique as the North Country. This summer really helped me to realize that, even after four years, I still had a lot to learn about the area. Unforeseen barriers to access like the lack of many natural gathering spaces for children and programming available for kids in the summer, as well as people’s attitudes towards food assistance programs forced me to consider other alternative programs as equally, if not better, sustainable options for SLC. The barriers that are both typical of SFSP sites and that are unique to SLC including transportation( participation rates, population density, attitudes towards assistance programs, and knowledge of program opportunities), have led me to believe that finding sustainable sources for funding bulk food distribution may be the way to go. Assessing these barriers, best practices and plans for the future were the subject of my final report I created for GardenShare on the possibility of expanding summer meal options. More to come on that later, so stay tuned to GardenShare’s social media and website!
Throughout my internship, I’ve learned a lot about how information is spread in SLC. My ability to conduct key informant interviews relied heavily on my attendance at board and sub-committee meetings as well as the Food Bank of Central New York partner conference – opportunities that I likely would not have been afforded as a nine-week intern at a larger non-profit organization. I was really integrated into the community and had a real voice in the conversation. During this experience, I realized how important those things are for me to feel fulfilled in my work, so I am thrilled to be staying with GardenShare for the next year as their AmeriCorps VISTA! This summer has been a great introduction to working with non-profits and food justice in general, and I can’t wait to continue the work I’ve started there. Here’s to the next year! It’s been a wild and, at times, exhausting ride but I think this internship has definitely taught me that some sort of work in the non-profit world addressing the root causes of inequalities and injustice is something I’m interested in pursuing long term.