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A Carnival of Caring: 2023’s Summer Meals Kickoff

by Eric Barr, Hunger Outreach Program Specialist

Tons of information and opportunities to learn and connect!” – Summer Meals Kickoff Attendee

The Oklahoma Childhood Food Security Coalition’s 2023 Summer Meals Kickoff, presented by Oklahoma Complete Health and Williams, was one for the ages! Thank you to all the participants, presenters, and sponsors.  

Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, this was the first in-person Summer Meals Kickoff in three years. With equity and inclusion as a goal, we also offered the option to attend virtually. The hybrid audio/visual component was not without its hiccups, but like most of our work, we would rather take on challenges to meet everyone’s needs. With that in mind, we would also like to thank all participants for their patience and grace. 

Summer Meals, which includes the Summer Food Service Program (SFSP) and Seamless Summer Option (SSO), allow any child and teen aged 18 or younger to receive a free and nutritious meal or snack from a participating location site. The Summer Meals Kickoff brings together organizations from all over the state with one goal in mind: learn about Summer Meals so we can keep our children fed during the summer months.    

Dr. Keisia Sobers-Butler, the Vice President of Population Health and Clinical Operations from Oklahoma Complete Health, started the Summer Meals Kickoff with a rousing opening video that set the tone for the rest of the day.   

Next, Devin Schroeder, Hunger Free Oklahoma’s Sr. Manager of Programs, highlighted the collective efforts of Oklahoma sponsors and sites, the diverse people and organizations participating in the Kickoff, and data from the 2022 Summer Meals season.    

The keynote was given by speaker and author Marlysa Gamblin, who discussed the importance of implementing racial equity in Summer Meals and strategies for sites and sponsors to integrate racial equity into their programs 

Seven breakout topics spread across three sessions and five short lunch-and-learn videos were featured during the Summer Meals Kickoff. Topics ranged from building partnerships to data-driven decision-making and were selected to help new and experienced sites and sponsors navigate the Summer Meals program. 

In the first break out session, attendees could choose from Building Community Partnerships hosted jointly by Shelia Russell from Tulsa Public Schools and Melissa Griego from Unite US, Sponsor Basics hosted by Chelsea Casso from the Regional Food Bank of Oklahoma, or Rural Outreach hosted jointly by Colleen Almeida Smith and Chris Liery from Food Bank of Eastern Oklahoma, which had a lot of engagement and discussion around serving rural meals and what future waivers may look like. 

For the second breakout session, Programming for Attendance was hosted by Mackenzie Garst of Boys and Girls Club of Ottawa County and Sponsor Application and Management was led by Jennifer Weber and Dee Houston, both from the Oklahoma Department of Education, and Hilary Brookins from Chickasaw Nation. In Sponsor Application and Management, organizations and school districts learned about participating as a Summer Meals sponsor and helpful tips on record keeping. Understanding that in-person events are more stressful now than ever, there was also a decompression space during the second session to allow attendees to have a quiet place where they could gather their thoughts for the afternoon. 

The learning continued during lunch with a variety of videos: 

During breakout session three, Sponsor Application and Management was offered again, along with a facilitated School District Discussion Group. Data-Driven Decision Making for Summer Meals Strategies was also offered, led by Gia Chow and Richard Comeau from Hunger Free Oklahoma, who showed new and seasoned sponsors how to use different data sets together to inform site location selection. 

After session three, attendees made new connections while enjoying snow cones from Sasquatch Shaved Ice and popcorn served by Hunger Free Oklahoma’s CEO, Chris Bernard. Virtual attendees met to share lessons learned from the event, previous Summer Meals experience, and to make connections with other like-minded individuals 

Treasure Standeford, Hunger Free Oklahoma’s Senior Hunger Outreach Program Specialist, helped to close the action-packed day, inviting attendees to reflect on three Is central to offering Summer Meals: Inclusion, Improvement, and Interdependence. These values are foundational to the work we do. The Three Is were a throughline throughout the kickoff, highlighted during the keynote, in breakout rooms, and at networking opportunities. 

We all work together to make sure that every rural, urban, and suburban community has access to healthy, nutritional food.  We work to improve not only our knowledge of the Summer Meals programs but also our processes, to remove obstacles for sites, sponsors, and our communities. Our approach to partnerships and collaboration shows how we are interdependent on each other to be successful. One team with one goal: to feed the future of Oklahoma. 

Feeding our children during the summer can seem like a daunting task. But the attendees left with more knowledge and a larger network that will empower them to keep our children fed during the summer. Thank you again to all our attendees, participants, sponsors, and vendors. Without you the 2023 Summer Meals Kickoff would not have been possible. 

Together, we can make Summer 2023 a summer without hunger! 

Working together for a hunger free Oklahoma.

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