The large signs hanging at the entrances of Broadway Middle School that promote free summer meals include the broad proclamation, “Please join us!” That message of enthusiastic welcome is amplified inside the cafeteria, where the Seaside School District’s head cook Jessica Smith not only hands out lunch to children 1 to 18 five days per week but also dishes out friendly small talk and an approachable smile.

“We want to feed everyone we can,” Smith said, as she busied herself Monday serving corn dogs, French fries, fruit and vegetables to more than 50 young people during the lunch period.

The school district is one of multiple entities in Clatsop County that sponsors a site where children and adults with life challenges can get lunch for free through the state’s Summer Food Service program. The Astoria, Warrenton-Hammond, and Jewell school districts sponsor another 11 sites, and the state of Oregon has more than 875 sites altogether.

To highlight the availability of free summer lunches, the state celebrated Summer Meals Week in mid-July. Although more than 300,000 children are eligible for free or reduced lunch during the school, less than 15% participate in the summer program, according to the Oregon Department of Education.

“When school is out during summer, some students may not get the nutrition or learning opportunities they need, causing a ‘summer gap’ that is difficult to make up once school starts again in the fall,” the Department of Education’s Summer Meals Outreach Coordinator Jessica Visinksy said. “Boosting students over the summer helps us foster equity and excellence for every learner year-round.”

‘Numbers have been strong’

Seaside used to have two site locations, including one at The Heights Elementary School. Since the campus is under construction, however, the program has been consolidated at the middle school.

“Part of our challenge has been when there are other locations, we don’t get the traffic,” said Tamra Taylor, the Director of Dining Services for Chartwells who services the Seaside and Warrenton-Hammond school district. “With The Heights having construction going on and everything, it’s just been Broadway for the past two years, and our numbers have been strong.”

The district served 2,987 meals in 2018, or an average of 61 per day, and this year’s numbers seem to be similar.

Since the Summer Food Service Program is federally funded and administered by the state, the sponsors must keep diligent records of how many people are served each day and also follow strict nutrition guidelines. Taylor develops a two-week menu that gets rotated, ensuring each meal meets the requirements.

During the summer, there is only one meal option and children have to take all the offered food items, which include servings of fresh fruits and vegetables, milk, and whole grains.

Although lunch is served from 11:30 a.m. to 12:15 p.m., Smith gets there early in the morning to start prepping and cooking. She keeps track of how many meals are served each day of the week to estimate how much to prepare on that day the following week.

However, she said, “It’s not our goal to turn anyone away.” If they run out of the designated daily meal option, she willingly puts together a sandwich with fixings on hand or other meal so no one leaves hungry. Adults can also purchase lunch for $3.50, or Smith will give young adults who are just past the age requirement lunch in exchange for a simple task, such as sweeping or wiping down a table.

One of Smith’s favorite aspects of the job is that, after working for the district several years, she sees “the same people year after year.” She pointed out one family, whose young daughter she remembers being towed in a wagon as an infant.

“Now she’s getting her own lunch,” Smith said.

Taylor feels the summer program fills a tangible need in the community, providing a safety net to ensure all children have access to a free meal at least five days per week even when school is out. With the middle school being close to the park, Seaside Public Library, and recreation district, families have access to “activity all day long” in one centralized location, she said.

Next year, the state will be extending its Farm to School resources to cover not only the school year, but also the summer program, which Taylor looks forward to taking advantage of. She already tries to work with local vendors to incorporate fresh, seasonal foods into the menu.

“Unfortunately, the best season is during the summer, so that’s why I’m really excited to have that program come online next year,” she said.

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