A report released last week by the Food Research and Action Center shows Oklahoma had the nation’s third-highest increase in summer meal participation from 2017 to 2018 with a 14.9 percent increase, but still ranks last overall. Approximately 570 summer meal sites served 16,612 Oklahoma kids daily in July 2018.

Summer meals are crucial because when the school year ends, so do school meals. For the more than 425,000 Oklahoma kids who eat free and reduced-price school meals at school, this means a heightened risk of going hungry. The Summer Food Service Program (SFSP), a U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) program administered by the Oklahoma State Department of Education (OSDE), works to combat childhood hunger by partnering with local nonprofits and faith-based organizations to provide meals at no cost to kids 18 years old and younger.

The increase is a result of a targeted effort by many Oklahoma organizations that began in spring 2018 and continues to grow.

“We are very encouraged by the progress we have made and are grateful to our partners for their tireless efforts to feed more kids during the summer,” said Oklahoma State Superintendent of Public Instruction Joy Hofmeister. “But by no means are we finished. We have much more progress to make, and we will do it through the collaborative foundation we have built over the last two years.”

Over the past 18 months, the Childhood Food Security Coalition launched a rebranding campaign and marketing effort to educate Oklahomans about free summer meal opportunities. That initiative, Food For Thought: Food, Friends and Fun, aims to bolster participation in free summer meals by increasing awareness to the families who need the support and recruiting additional summer meal sites to serve up to two meals per day.

The statewide Childhood Food Security Coalition consists of more than 20 organizations, including OSDE, Hunger Free Oklahoma, Tribal Nations, Oklahoma Association of YMCAs, the Community Food Bank of Eastern Oklahoma, the Regional Food Bank of Oklahoma and public school districts across the state.

Increased participation translates into more money returning to Oklahoma to serve children in need. The Food Research and Action Center report indicates the state would bring back $8.5 million in additional federal reimbursements annually if the summer breakfast to summer lunch ratio reached 40 children out of every 100 who might be in need of the program.

“Our state partners are at the forefront of innovation in administering the summer meals program, and we’re pleased to see the growth Oklahoma has made in the first year of this new campaign,” said Bill Ludwig, regional administrator of USDA Food and Nutrition Service (FNS) Southwest Region. “FNS is committed to empowering our state partners to administer this program in ways that best meet the needs of those they serve directly.”

Free summer meals are available across the state at hundreds of locations through August; visit www.Meals4KidsOK.org to find a site.