By Cecilia Chan
GSN Managing Editor

A federal program that feeds hungry, underprivileged students is underway at nine Gilbert Public Schools locations.

And statistics show the need exists even in a town more associated with affluence than hunger.

Gilbert Public Schools reported a 6.6 percent increase in the number of meals served last summer compared with 2017.

Last June and July, 105,179 meals were served to children younger than 18 — an increase from June and July 2017, when 98,657 meals were served, according to Dawn Antestenis, district spokeswoman.

Meals served to adults also increased to 682 from 514 for the same time periods, she added.

The summer meals program ensures students continue to eat free nutritious meals when school is not in session and is administered by the Arizona Department of Education.

“For our high-need areas in the state it’s critical,” said Stefan Swiat, department spokesman. “When you look at certain portions of the state there are areas where students only receive their meals from school.

“If you are on the breakfast and lunch program during the school year and it goes away in the summer, you need to supplant that food,” Swiat added. “That program gives students the opportunity to receive nutritional substance throughout the summer.”

The meals are similar to what is offered during the school year. They must meet federal nutrition standards with lunch, including milk, two servings of fruits and vegetables, a grain and a protein.

In Arizona there was a 3 percent increase in students participating in the program for 2018 from the year before, according to Swiat.

He said it would be speculative to say why the numbers increased.

“There are so many variables,” he said. “It could be growth in a district, growth in the state. You talk to 10 different economists and you get 10 different opinions.”

Higley Unified School District doesn’t offer the program because it falls short of the 50 percent of students who qualify for the free or reduced-price lunches, according to Rebecca Cook, district Food Service analyst.

Higley does post on its website Gilbert Public School sites students can go to for food.

“Our highest school is only at 44 percent,” Cook said. “The federal summer food program is determined by a school community’s free- and reduced-lunch rates. None of Higley’s schools currently qualify.”

Three campuses at Gilbert Public Schools have over 50 percent of their students qualifying for free or reduced-price lunches: Harris Elementary with 75 percent, Oak Tree Elementary with 53 percent and Burk Elementary with 52 percent, according to a state education department report for 2018-19.

Statewide, 56 percent of students qualify for free or reduced-priced meals.

Overall for summer 2018, the federal program provided over 1.5 million meals and snacks to children around the country, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Food and Nutrition Service Agency.

Although there are Valley food banks, not all families can get to them, Swiat said.

“What you see throughout the state are schools, specifically district sites, that are very convenient locations for students who don’t have access to transportation and can’t get to a food bank,” he said.

“Schools are the cornerstone of a community and is more accessible to students than one off-site like a food bank,” Swiat said. “In addition, a lot of schools provide transportation to students. They pick you up and drop off at certain schools.”

Swiat said in Arizona, 55 to 60 percent of the sites are on school campuses.

“I just encourage people to take advantage of the program that are in need and for schools to reach out to people that it’s available,” he said.