Metro Parks TacomaA new partnership between Metro Parks Tacoma and Subway could provide a model for agencies feeding low-income children nationwide, administrators say.
Tacoma's parks district is the first public agency in Washington state--and possibly the first in the U.S.--to collaborate with a major restaurant chain on its free summer lunch program. According to Shon Sylvia, director of recreation and community services, his department is daily feeding four-inch Subway sandwiches to more than 500 children who might otherwise go hungry.
As children learn what's on the menu, "the numbers are growing," he adds.
The partnership is the result of parents' complaints about lunches served in previous summers. While the lunches conformed to the same National School Lunch Program guidelines that govern school cafeterias, parents weren't pleased to learn their children were eating pizza.
"There was a concern that the lunches didn't seem healthy," Sylvia says.
Sylvia says parents haven't voiced any concerns about the department serving branded fast-food meals. Although Subway is generally acknowledged as a healthy alternative to chains that specialize in fried foods and red meat, some children's advocates worry about exposing young children to additional fast-food promotions. A recent Yale University study discovered that preschoolers in 2009 saw 56 percent more ads for Subway than preschoolers saw in 2007.
While the same study commended Subway for including milk and fruit in its kids' meals, the free-lunch program could plausibly entice more children to visit a Subway store, where the choices include half a dozen six-inch sandwiches with more than 500 calories and double-digit fat gram counts. When Domino's this year released a whole-wheat pizza for school cafeterias, the chain acknowledged the "Smart Slice" was intended as a local store marketing tool.
But the balanced lunches Subway is providing the City of Tacoma have apparently impressed the Tacoma-Pierce County Health Department's director of health. A release quotes an approving Anthony Chen as saying, "Keeping our kids active and feeding them healthy meals throughout the summer are two of the most important things we can do for their health."
Sylvia says Subway has been very receptive to feedback, and is tweaking lunch items to comply with federal guidelines.
According to Sylvia, "there's been kind of a push" for states to expand their free lunch service, which means the Subway deal could be replicated in other cities. "We've been told this is the first in the nation," Sylvia says.