This blog features best practices and insights shared on FRAC’s Summer Meals Matter Call, Expanding Access in Rural and Tribal Areas, by New Mexico Appleseed and the Chickasaw Nation. A special thanks is extended to these groups for sharing their expertise.

When the school day ends, whether for just the day or for the school year, millions of children across the country lose access to the meals they rely on to stay healthy, active, and engaged.

These summer and afterschool nutrition gaps are often exacerbated in rural and tribal areas, where unique barriers — such as transportation and limited access to programming — can keep even more children than elsewhere from accessing the nutrition they need. Over the past several years, the U.S. Department of Agriculture Food and Nutrition Service (USDA-FNS) has prioritized reducing these barriers and reaching more children in tribal areas with the help of two programs: the Afterschool Nutrition Programs and the Summer Nutrition Programs. As a result of this targeted expansion, focus on technical assistance, and strong leadership and ownership on the tribal level, more tribal youth are receiving meals through the summer and afterschool nutrition programs than ever before.

In Oklahoma, the Chickasaw Nation has emerged as a leader in connecting its youth to federally funded summer and afterschool meals. With the formation of the tribe’s Healthy Nation Committee and subsequent Healthy Meals and Snacks for Youth Policy, the summer and afterschool nutrition programs have become a vital part of connecting children and teens to healthier options all year. From 2006 to 2016, the Chickasaw Nation saw its sponsorship of summer meal sites grow from three sites serving 10,000 meals, to 64 sites serving 74,000 meals. The Chickasaw Nation saw success by placing meal sites in trusted locations — such as libraries, churches, and schools — and using elders and community champions to spread the word and serve as volunteers during meal service.

In 2015, the tribe began serving afterschool meals at the Chickasaw Nation Medical Center. This innovative approach provides an afterschool supper to any child at the medical center, even if the child is not receiving medical care. Recently, the Chickasaw Nation expanded to sponsor afterschool and summer sites for the Seminole Nation of Oklahoma, as well as some neighboring school districts.

New Mexico Appleseed, a statewide anti-hunger and anti-poverty organization, works closely with tribes in New Mexico to support the implementation of the federal nutrition programs by providing trainings and equipping tribal leaders with the tools they need to grow the programs. Recognizing the complex relationship and interplay between tribal, state, and federal governments, as well as with program regulations, New Mexico Appleseed tailors its technical assistance to reflect those dynamics. As an outsider, New Mexico Appleseed stresses the importance of recognizing the tribe’s sovereignty, approaching with a willingness to learn, and supporting the tribe’s efforts to incorporate culturally appropriate and traditional food.

Both the summer and the afterschool nutrition programs’ expansion efforts in tribal areas require cultural competency and investments in relationships with the community to fill the summer and afterschool hunger gaps for tribal youth.

Debbi Zachary, Summer Food Program Manager at the Chickasaw Nation Nutrition Services, recommends that, when working with tribal groups to implement the summer and afterschool meal programs, advocates should

  • take time to build trust with Tribal Leaders;
  • discover the unique needs and history of the tribe before offering assistance;
  • ask “how can I help” instead of making assumptions; and
  • respect the tribe’s culture and sovereignty.

Interested in learning more? USDA-FNS has additional resources on expanding summer and afterschool meals in tribal areas, including a fact sheet on reaching tribal youth with summer meals, and a sample letter to Tribal Leaders.

Get more information on Afterschool Nutrition Programs and the Summer Nutrition Programs through FRAC.