Viral texting campaign provides free meal options for Arizona kids

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A texting service run by national non-profit No Kid Hungry sends information on local organizations offering free meals for kids over the summer. Wochit

Get information on local free-meal services for kids this summer with a simple text.

How it works: Text “FOOD” to the number 877-877. The service will respond with a message requesting your address or ZIP code. Text back, and wait for a response with a list of summer meal resources in your area.

For Spanish, text “COMIDA” to the same number.

The texting service, run by the national non-profit Share Our Strength, replies with information on the closet locations offering free summer meals, including the organization’s address, hours of operation and meals served.

The service taps into a national database of approved organizations enrolled in the Summer Food Service Program, a federally funded child-nutrition program sponsored by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Giving back, going viral

The campaign quickly went viral, taking social media by storm. Posts about the texting service were shared on Facebook and Twitter by parents, schools and non-profits alike.

The need for summer meals is high, but participation around the nation is low. Nationwide, only about 16 percent of children who get free lunch during the school year are also accessing summer meals, according to Derrick Lambert, program manager for No Kid Hungry.

In Arizona, participation levels in summer meal programs drop to only 12 percent.

The barrier? Awareness. The non-profit recognized families were unaware of the program or didn’t know how to locate sites offering summer meals.

The texting service aims to provide more readily available information on summer meals to families.

“Together, we really feel we have the power to end summer hunger in Arizona, and across the country,” Lambert said.

The texting line launched nationwide in 2013, but has been widely promoted online and through social media this past summer. Lambert said the biggest boost in raising awareness of the program is simply word-of-mouth.

“(Share Our Strength) decided to use technology to their benefit,” said Angie Rodgers, CEO of the Association of Arizona Food Banks. “The texting line really has been a fantastic way to reach out to large numbers of individuals.”

Childhood hunger is a constant issue, especially over the summer, Rodgers added.

A survey conducted last year by the Morrison Institute for Public Policy identified several challenges with participation in the Summer Meal Program in Arizona. Aside from a lack of awareness of the program, parents also struggled with transportation to and from meal sites, especially on the days that reach nearly 120 degrees.

This year, Rodgers said the association is implementing new programs specific to the needs of individual communities. For example, several libraries in southern Arizona are testing a meal program that offers breakfast in a bag.

“We’re hoping we can reach more families during the summertime,” Rodgers said. “We want to make sure kids are getting that meal.”

Rodgers said there are roughly 1,000 sites participating in the Summer Meal Program across Arizona. In total, the state will serve 3.5 million to 4 million meals over the summer.

More than 650,000 kids are enrolled in a meal assistance program during the school year. The state serves roughly 13 million meals per month.

Summer meal programs for kids

Several federally funded programs offer summer meals for free or at a reduced cost for children 18 or younger.

The Summer Food Service Program services schools and universities, local government agencies, non-profits and community-based organizations. Kids have access to free meals throughout the day: breakfast, lunch, dinner and a snack.

To qualify for the summer program, an organization must be in a geographic area where 50 percent or more of children qualify for free or reduced-price school meals, as defined by national census data. The program also offers funding for sites serving children of migrant farm workers and summer camp programs.

Many organization that offer the Summer Meal Program often have accompanying activities, keeping kids stimulated while school is out of session, Lambert said.

“These programs are operated by organizations people trust,” he added.

The National School Lunch and School Breakfast programs are also available for schools that offer academic summer school. Students enrolled in summer school are eligible for free or reduced-priced meals based on their qualifications during the school year.

For more information on free summer meal sites in your neighborhood, view this map or call the National Hunger Hotline at 866-3-Hungry (866-348-6479) or 877-8-Hambre (877-842-6273).

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