What are the characteristics of summer meal program participation and operations?

Examining summer meal program participation and operation characteristics with the USDA Summer Meals Study


Higher rates of household food insecurity exist during the summer months as families struggle to find alternative sources of food when school is not in session. To help address food insecurity, the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA’s) summer meal programs serve free meals at sites located in low-income areas and at sites that serve a high proportion of children living in low-income households. Despite the availability of free meals, fewer children participate in the summer meal program than in the school meal programs.

The USDA Summer Meals Study provides a comprehensive assessment of the agency’s 2 summer meal programs: the Summer Food Service Program (SFSP) and the Seamless Summer Option (SSO).


This study examines the characteristics of participating and nonparticipating children, including sociodemographic characteristics, household food security status, reasons for participation or nonparticipation, and satisfaction with the meals served to children in the summer of 2018.

The study also describes the operational aspects of the programs at summer meal sites, characteristics of their food service environments, and the nutritional quality of the meals served to children.

Westat employed a mixed-methods design. Surveys were administered to summer meal program sponsors, site staff, caregivers, and children. In-depth interviews were conducted with a subset of summer meal program sponsors, site staff, and caregivers. Menus were collected from sponsors and sites to assess meal quality.


The study provides key data on the scope of these programs, such as the food security rate, coverage rate, and percentage of open and closed sites. Some highlights include the following:

  • 80% of children in low-income households live within 1 mile of an urban summer meals site and 10 miles of a rural summer meals site.
  • 27% of children in low-income households living near a summer meal site receive free meals there.
  • 45% of households with children living near a summer meals site are food insecure.
  • 83% of summer meal sites were open to all children.
  • 55% of the summer meals were served to elementary-age children.
  • 66% of summer meal sites offered 2 meal/snack services.
  • 89% of summer meal sites serve fresh fruits and/or vegetables at least twice a week.
  • 85% have special accommodations in place for children with food allergies and special dietary needs.
  • 90% of participant caregivers are satisfied or very satisfied with the program.
  • Lack of awareness of the program is the leading reason for nonparticipation among almost half (46%) of the eligible households.  

The study highlighted 4 strategies for improving children’s participation:

  • Offering activities
  • Offering transportation
  • Serving meals to parents
  • Allowing children to take food home

Learn more:

USDA Summer Meals Program: Lack of Program Awareness Contributes to Unmet Need Among Nonparticipants

USDA Summer Meals Programs: Meeting the Nutritional Needs of Children

USDA Summer Meals Study | Food and Nutrition Service

USDA Summer Meals Study infographic (PDF)


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