There’s rarely a quiet summer afternoon at Rainier Valley’s expansive Othello Playground.
School’s out and the weather is heating up, but for the past several years, kids and families have mainly flocked to the park for the chicken Cobb salads, turkey-and-cheddar hoagies, hummus snacks and SunButter-and-jelly sandwiches — all served at no cost.
The meals are part of the federally funded Summer Food Service Program (SFSP), which aims to feed low-income children and teenagers who often rely on free or reduced-price school lunches and go hungry when school isn’t in session.
During the 2018-19 school year, 37% of Washington K-12 students qualified for free meals and 7% qualified for reduced-price meals.
In Seattle, the city’s human-services department partners with Seattle Public Schools, Parks and Recreation, United Way of King County and other agencies to serve about 200,000 SFSP meals to youth under 18 years old every summer.Last summer, Seattle hosted 102 lunchtime sites at schools, parks, community centers, libraries and apartment complexes, according to program spokeswoman Tina Skilton. This year, there are 113 local sites, including Othello, which provide free lunches Monday through Friday from noon-1:30 p.m., Skilton said. Some have different lunch times and don’t serve every weekday.
The program has also expanded on a state level. Last summer, Washington worked with 152 sponsoring organizations and 934 sites. This year, it’s grown to 160 sponsors and 981 sites.
Titite, a 38-year-old mother who lives close to Othello, brings her two children — ages 2 and 5 — to the park almost every day during the summer. From September to June, she said, her son qualifies for free lunches. During the summer, he doesn’t have that option.
“It’s so great,” she said about the meals. “Always get a variety and not too greasy. I don’t have to worry about them getting fat.”
Titite, who asked that her last name not be used because of the stigma associated with being low-income, is a former full-time babysitter. Before that, she ran an Ethiopian restaurant, but closed it when her kids’ schedules got too busy. She’s now looking for another job.
While the program, which was developed by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, doesn’t individually track participating kids and offers lunches to any child who asks, the food must be served in communities where at least 50% of children are eligible for free and reduced-price school meals.
“The goal is to reach low-income children and families, but … we’ve found it’s important to create a happy and safe environment and that’s done by including everyone,” said Delenn Whitehead, one of the site supervisors at Othello.
The program also offers physical activities and arts and crafts. On Thursdays, Whitehead said, a professional jump-roper holds jump-roping workshops. Other days, they organize soccer games, offer face-painting or make friendship bracelets.
Jonah Hister, who lives in Seattle’s Lakewood neighborhood, has been bringing his three kids to the city’s SFSP sites for three or four years.
“It’s great for building community,” Hister said. “It gets people mingling from different backgrounds you wouldn’t otherwise meet … There’s no stigma.”
His 7-year-old son, Henry, especially looks forward to the make-your-own pizzas and bagel sandwiches, Hister said.
“I like that they have different lunches and don’t waste stuff,” said Henry, who had just finished a game of UNO. “And that it’s only for kids.”
Hister and his kids have been to SFSP sites all over the city, including Lakewood Playground and Maple Wood Playfield.
“It’s a big part of our summer routine,” Hister said. “The kids look forward to it every year.”