Over 21.5 million youth under the age of 18 in the United States receive free or reduced-cost lunches every day at school. But when classes end and summer begins, these students must turn elsewhere to find meals. This year, the USDA planned to serve over 200 million free meals to youth through the Summer Food Service Program (SFSP) at local youth centers, libraries, churches, and other community-based organizations. (If you were sitting in front of me right now, we’d both be nodding in agreement that that’s a lot!)
Free food found in every state
It may surprise you that across the country, more than 53,000 free-meal sites operated over the course of this summer. And while that number may instill awe and admiration for programs doing right by people who need extra help, consider this: sites aren’t always open the entire summer. And locations may close over the course of the summer. The hard truth is that finding an open site may be a difficult and ongoing task for youth and their families.
From a paper list in a backpack to a mobile app
At Caravan Studios, we wanted to make this task easier. We worked with the community to build Range, a mobile app trusted adults and professionals can use to more effectively help families find those sites. U.S. states report site information to the USDA and we use the USDA’s data to make sure Range always shows up-to-date locations and resources. Simply said, when you open Range on your smart phone during the summer months, you’ll see flags marking nearby meal sites.
Imagine how much better an app can present the most current information than a flyer stuffed into a backpack on the last day of school.
As summer came to an end this year, we were curious about the movement of summer meals. What did it look like, across the continental United States, as meal sites opened and closed over the summer? Where are the gaps and the concentrations?
This video chronicles the ebb and flow of meal sites from May to September 2016. Each dot on the map is an individual site.
More than lunch
Most sites serve more than just midday meals. Youth had the opportunity to eat lunch at more than 48,000 different locations, but they could also eat breakfast at almost 29,000 sites. Around 8,000 sites served snacks, and 3,000 served dinner. On average, meal sites that served lunch alone were open one hour and twenty-four minutes a day — that’s time during which youth could step back from the rest of the day and be around other kids, without providing any proof of their need.
The typical SFSP site was open for seven weeks of the summer, and the peak season lasted from June 27th to July 22nd. An average of 42,353 free meal sites were open per week in that time period. Over the whole summer, Texas had more active locations open than any other state (6,100) followed by Georgia (5,007), and Florida (3,994).
Visualizing the summer meal sites in this way reminds us how many opportunities there are for youth to eat well over the summer — if they know where to look. At Caravan Studios, we hope the Range app helped families find what they needed.
We’re a collaborative bunch of listeners and learners who rely on insiders to make us smarter outsiders. If you have ideas about how Caravan Studios can expand the power of Range to find more free meal sites or more resources for more youth, please get in touch with us. We look forward to learning more and providing more next summer.
-From the collaborating team of Sarah Washburn, Caravan Studios and Logan Noel, summer intern, class of 2019 at the University of Chicago. The video was all Logan’s magic.