During a normal school year, many young people receive free meals at their school sites. In fact in 2018 – 2019, 12.4 million low-income children participated in the school breakfast program nationwide. But when school is out for summer, students go from being served meals in school to needing to find where meals are served to youth courtesy of the USDA Summer Food Service Program (SFSP).
Free SFSP meals are available in the summer months at different sites in communities, like public libraries, community centers, public pools, parks and recreation facilities, and more. However, these sites may open and close over the course of summer, and families often struggle to stay updated, or even to know about the resources available to them.
This year, as we all know, was different.
Range, a free mobile app created by TechSoup's Caravan Studios, helps to address this problem. Range locates where free food is served to youth during the summer months. Using data from the USDA, people can find sites nearby to them, learn what meals are served and when, and get contact information for each site.
But due to the COVID-19 pandemic, when many schools shut down in late March and early April, the need to find meal sites came early. Here's how the team behind Range continues to adapt to the new landscape of food insecurity in response to the COVID-19 pandemic and beyond.
How the Pandemic Changed Things
In early March, when COVID-19 began to spread in communities and subsequently schools closed, meals in schools shifted to a "grab and go" format that families could pick up while following COVID-19 safety precautions.
Starting in early April, Caravan Studios started adding these new sites into the Range app. However, since COVID-19 hit some states earlier than others, changes to the way food resources were provided were led by school districts, not state and county leadership. This shift in the provision of resources led to better outreach — districts could robocall, email, and text parents about sites. But some sites were not included in the USDA dataset right away, which meant that some sites didn't appear in Range or other food site resources. In these cases, the Caravan Studios team began scouring school district websites, state websites, and even Instagram posts, like the one below from Corinth School District in Mississippi.
"What used to be a national and uniform program is now very hyperlocal," said Sarah Washburn, director of community experience at Caravan Studios. "This caused responses from local and state governments to vary drastically in different areas." The differences in responses and jurisdiction meant that data showing open meal sites has not been made available in the more predictable ways it had pre-COVID-19.
In response, Caravan Studios began posting information on a wiki page in addition to inputting data into Range, in order to fill in information gaps from states that were showing no data on meal service sites. As case numbers increased across the country, that data slowly began to return to the USDA’s website, allowing for Range to now display a more complete map of service sites in every state.
The team's process of adapting to this crisis situation remains a learning experience, forcing Caravan Studios to dive deeper into the search for additional trusted resources to help fight food insecurity. There have also been many changes to the SFSP because of the pandemic, and this has provided new challenges to the way data is gathered on where low-income families can get free meals for children.
How to Use Range
We encourage you to use and share this tool with anyone you feel could benefit from it. To use Range, download the app, share your location, and select Food. Then use the interactive map to view locations serving meals near you, as well as the location's days and hours of operation.
Note: Range can also identify where public libraries are located and their days and hours of operation as well — just click Safe Places when you open the app.
The Caravan Studios team continues to add as much data as they can about meal sites and services onto the app as the USDA's SFSP adapts to COVID-19 conditions.
Are you involved in any organizations that tackle food insecurity? If so, how has COVID-19 affected your goals and strategies, and how do you continue to provide resources? Caravan Studios would love to hear from you. Please reach out and share your stories so that together we can better understand the challenges facing our communities in the area of food insecurity among youth in America. You can reach out to the Range team directly via this contact form.
As a team, Caravan Studios seeks to solve local problems by designing technology along with communities. Whether you define community by geography, by a shared desire for change, or by a common set of skills, the Caravan Studios team works together to build tools that harness and organize any and all available resources.