The bustle in the Brookfield Elementary cafeteria belied the date on the calendar.
On a Wednesday in the middle of July, children lined up in the halls at the Chantilly school, awaiting their turn for breakfast.
The children received the meal as part of Fairfax County school system’s Summer Food Service Program. The service provides free breakfasts and lunches to children, aiming to bridge the nutritional gap that can plague children during summer months.
“A lot of kids, we don’t know if they get breakfast or lunch at home,” said Colleen Vidaurre, the summer kitchen manager at Brookfield. “To know that they have something, that’s a good feeling.”
Last school year in Fairfax County, 28 percent of students were eligible for free and reduced price meals during the school year. Schools provide free breakfasts and lunches to all these students. When summer starts, children lose these guaranteed meals, a problem targeted by the Summer Food Service Program.
Brookfield is one of 48 schools throughout the county that operate as open sites through the Summer Food Service Program, serving meals to anyone up to age 18. The program is funded by the U.S. Department of Agriculture and administered through the Virginia Department of Health.
More than 1,500 sites throughout Virginia are participating in the program; last year, the state served 4 million meals through the SFSP.
“Millions of children are food insecure, and this program allows access to a free and nutritious meal they might not otherwise get during the day,” said Kate Alie, the state’s SFSP supervisor.
The Fairfax County school system averages more than 26,000 meals each day, divided almost evenly between breakfasts and lunches, said Amy Hubal, food and nutrition operations coordinator for the school system. The school division receives reimbursement from the USDA for the meals they serve.
Brookfield Elementary accounts for about 125 breakfasts and lunches each day. The food for the meals is delivered by vans from one of five central kitchens, then Vidaurre puts the meals together in plastic bags. Meals operate on a strict nutritional formula. Each breakfast includes a grain, a milk and fruit juice.
On Wednesday, a girl in a Captain America T-shirt smiled as she looked into the plastic sack and spied a bagel, that day’s grain. On Tuesday, the breakfast entree was banana bread; on Monday, Cinnamon Toast Crunch cereal.
The program starts as soon as school ends and runs through the start of school the next year, with meals served on weekdays. However, each site can select its own start and end dates within that span.
At most schools, the program dates coincide with a summer program that brings students into the school. At Brookfield, many children receiving the breakfasts and lunches participate in the summer school program, though as an open site the SFSP also welcomes these student’s siblings as well as other children from the neighborhood.
Fairfax County’s Department of Neighborhood Services also operates about 33 SFSP sites across the county. Last year, the county sites distributed about 74,000 meals.
“The biggest part of the meal program is done by the school system,” Quarles said. “We fill the areas the schools can’t reach.”
Of the county sites, 10 start serving meals as soon as school ends and go through the end of August, filling the holes in the calendar left by other locations. Still, Brent Quarles, the county’s SFSP coordinator, says the most popular locations are those that also offer other classes or programming for children.
“It’s hard to get kids into sites that are just open sites and don’t offer anything else,” Quarles said. “We try to go where the kids are.”
Families can find the Summer Food Service Program location closest to them by texting “Food” to 877877, by calling 211 or by searching online at www.whyhunger.org/findfood.