For children who get free meals at school, summer can mean going hungry. But that doesn’t have to be the case. Parks and schools across Austin are serving free meals to children under 18 while school's out, thanks to funding from the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the Central Texas Food Bank.
On a Tuesday morning, 180 children gather in the cafeteria at Harris Elementary School, laughing and licking their fingers as they munch on chicken nuggets.
"It's tasty!" one yells.
The children are participating in a free six-week summer camp run by the Andy Roddick Foundation. Every day campers get free breakfast and lunch. The Austin Independent School District cooks and serves the meals, just like during the school year.
But children don’t have to be enrolled in the camp to eat at Harris or any of the more than 100 sites around Austin offering free meals. Nor do they have to qualify for them.
“When a child comes through the door to eat a meal, they don’t have to provide their name," says Derrick Lambert, program manager of No Kid Hungry, a national nonprofit that is helping spread the word about the program. "Their parents don’t have to provide income information."
The USDA picks meal sites based on how many children eligible for free and reduced lunch live in the neighborhood. But only a fraction of those kids are taking advantage of the program, says Katie Nye, regional director for the Texas Hunger Initiative. Organizers think that's because parents don't know the programs exist.
The Texas Hunger Initiative has been working with No Kid Hungry to spread the word. Lambert says one thing that’s been working is a texting tool No Kid Hungry developed three years ago.
“You can text 'food' to 877-877," he says. "Families and caregivers can find out when and where meals are being served nearby." The service also operates in Spanish by texting "comida" to the number.
This year, the group decided to advertise the tool on Facebook. People thought the free meals were too good to be true and flagged the ad as spam, Lambert says, prompting Snopes to write an article about it.
“We’ve really seen a huge uptick in usage of the service this year," he says. "We’ve actually seen more use of the service since things got started this summer than in all previous years combined."
In addition to schools, many public parks and recreation centers in Austin are providing free meals for kids this summer, thanks to help from the Central Texas Food Bank. You can access a full list of free summer lunch sites online at the Texas Department of Agriculture’s website, or do as Lambert says and text 877-877.