FARGO — South High School doesn’t take a break for summer. By 10 a.m., the parking lot is nearly full, 25 bikes fill the front rack, and numerous camps, athletic programs and summer classes are in full swing.

Inside the school, the cafeteria is full, too, as Jan Tronnes and Shannon Nowak, Fargo school cafeteria managers, greet over 200 students with a “thank you for joining us for breakfast.”

South High School is one of 25 sites across Fargo, West Fargo and Moorhead offering free meals to kids in low-income areas. Public schools like South High, YMCA and Salvation Army sites, and food banks are taking part in the federally-funded Summer School Meals program, which aims to provide nutritious meals when the school lunch program is not available.

This summer, South High alone will serve about 14,500 meals, and YMCA camps will serve a total of about 200,000 meals.

Fargo Public School meals cost the district about $3 per student, including food and labor costs. Most of that cost, although not all, is reimbursed by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA).

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North Dakota’s rate of food insecurity is relatively low, at about 9% of households, but that number is growing. In the Fargo School District, about 32% of students qualified for free or reduced-price lunch in the 2018-2019 school year.

For students who rely on school meals, summer can mean less access to nutritious foods.

“The need for food doesn’t go away in the summer,” said Cindy Hogenson, nutrition services director for Fargo Public Schools. "We want to feed kids in the community and reach as many people as possible."

Kitchen manager Jan Tronnes serves lunch to students who just finished their summer school class Wednesday, June 19, at Fargo South High School. Michael Vosburg / Forum Photo Editor
Kitchen manager Jan Tronnes serves lunch to students who just finished their summer school class Wednesday, June 19, at Fargo South High School. Michael Vosburg / Forum Photo Editor

South provides breakfast and lunch to about 260 students a day. Meals are provided for any child already in the building, which means at times football players, children attending swimming lessons, summer school attendees, and many younger campers could be eating side-by-side.

Meals resemble school year favorites, like hamburgers, chicken patties, pizza, veggies, fruit and milk. The favorite breakfast is Cheez-Its, string cheese, an apple and milk.

The food could be better, said members of the South High football team, who eat the school-provided lunch Monday through Friday after four-hour practices. Without these free summer lunches, students would probably resort to pricier, less healthy fast food, or go without eating, team members said.

“It’s good food,” said South High student Fred Murwanashyaka. “It’s not a bad lunch.”

A sign reminds students they are all welcome to a free lunch Wednesday, June 19, at Fargo South High School. Michael Vosburg / Forum Photo Editor
A sign reminds students they are all welcome to a free lunch Wednesday, June 19, at Fargo South High School. Michael Vosburg / Forum Photo Editor

Some area schools, like South, only offer meals to students who are attending programs in the school. Other sites are open to both children attending summer programs and children in the community. None of the meal sites require registration.

Along with South, meals are provided to students attending programs at Carl Ben Eielson Middle School and Agassiz School as well as Ed Clapp, Jefferson, Eagles, Lincoln and Lewis & Clark elementary schools.

“We see the need,” said Gloria Adelman, who works as a proctor at South High. “A lot of students wouldn’t have meals without this program.”

Schools, churches, community centers, housing centers, and programs offering summer services can qualify for funding through the USDA program. To qualify as a site that serves food, at least half the children in the census area must be eligible for free or reduced-price school meals, according to the USDA.

Students enjoy a free lunch Wednesday, June 19, at Fargo South High School. Michael Vosburg / Forum Photo Editor
Students enjoy a free lunch Wednesday, June 19, at Fargo South High School. Michael Vosburg / Forum Photo Editor

Meal partnerships

At Jefferson Elementary, Fargo Public Schools partners with the YMCA to serve meals to both K-6 YMCA campers and students attending the English learner summer program. At noon, the facility opens to anyone in the community, including adults.

The YMCA serves three meals a day at Jefferson — breakfast, lunch and a “super snack” supper. The site feeds about 100 students a day, but the YMCA feeds about 1,800 local kids a day, said Lorrie Thoemke, vice president of child care and youth at the YMCA of Cass and Clay Counties.

Although not all the kids fed through summer meal programs come from low-income homes, there's been a growing need each year for food programs, Thoemke said. Many grandparents care for children in the community. For these fixed-income households, affording the increased cost of food in the summer can be difficult.

Ashlynn Flechtner, an 8-year-old YMCA camper, says the food isn’t quite as good as her dad’s cooking (because he makes meatballs with his spaghetti), but it’s pretty close.

Out of 10, “it’s a 10,” one YMCA camper shared. Another enthusiastically added, “it’s a 100!”

More than just filling stomachs

During the summer, students face the “summer slide” and they lose fundamental knowledge from the school year. On average, most students lose two months of math and reading skills every summer. The slide can be more profound for low-income students, who on average lose 4-5 months of skills, according to the National Summer Learning Association.

Food insecurity can make the summer loss of learning even greater and can further contribute to poor performance in school, poor health and development, and a higher risk of childhood and adult obesity, according to Children’s Health Watch.

Summer meal programs help mitigate these issues and may even lead to long-term health benefits, like increased high school graduation rates and reduced susceptibility to chronic diseases, according to a report from Deloitte Consulting and No Kid Hungry.

The map below shows local sites that provide free meals to children during the summer. Or text “FOOD” or "COMIDA" to 877-877 for a list of the closest locations provided by No Kid Hungry.

Readers can reach education reporter Emma Beyer, a Report For America corps member, at 701-241-5535 or ebeyer@forumcomm.com.