News: Local

Posted on Mar 2, 2016

Goal III Case Study: Cambridge, Mass.

The city of Cambridge, Massachusetts, population 107,289, has earned a gold medal for its work on Goal III: Smart Servings for Students of Let’s Move! Cities, Towns and Counties (LMCTC), a key part of First Lady Michelle Obama’s Let’s Move! Initiative. Sponsored by the Cambridge Department of Human Service Programs, the Cambridge Summer Food Service Program has provided free summer meals to young people for over 30 years. In 2011, the Cambridge Summer Food Service Program expanded as part of Let’s Move!. Now, in addition to giving kids the opportunity to eat a free, healthy lunch each day, the program gives them the chance to be physically active throughout the summer.

LMCTC Goal III: Smart Servings for Students

To provide healthy food to children and youth, local elected officials commit to expanding access to meal programs before, during and after the school day, and/or over the summer months.


The Cambridge Summer Food Service Program is sponsored by the Cambridge Department of Human Service Programs (DHSP). To provide meals and activities to youth, DHSP collaborates with several partners, including the Cambridge Public Health Department, the Agenda for Children’s Literacy Initiative (based at the health department), and the Cambridge Recreation Department. This collaboration gives the partners the opportunity to share ideas and combine resources, which has resulted in the expansion of programming for youth at the meal sites to include daily physical activity and weekly visits from the Cambridge Book Bike, which gives out free books and does activities with youth at the site.

Ten years ago, following up on concerns regarding the quality of the lunches provided to summer programs in Cambridge, the Cambridge Public Health Department collaborated with the Cambridge Department of Human Service Programs to find a new meal provider. Together they developed specific criteria for meal quality, and incorporated these criteria into a request for proposals (RFP). Through the RFP process, DHSP was able to select a vendor that makes meals fresh daily, rather than using frozen or prepackaged food. Since the new meal provider has been in place, both the staff who serve the meals and the kids who eat them report a clear improvement in meal quality.

Separate from the Cambridge Summer Food Service Program, Cambridge Public Health Department staff has been working with several of the city’s afterschool programs to create snack guidelines and improve the quality of the snacks served to students. Additionally, in order to make sure as many kids as possible have access to affordable, healthy lunches, the schools and the Cambridge Public Health Department have been working for over a decade to increase participation in the school meal program at public schools throughout the city. The primary way they have done this is by improving food quality and expanding meal options, including putting salad bars in most school cafeterias. As a result of these changes, Niche, an online ranking and review site, recently named Cambridge Public Schools as having the best school lunch food in the nation.

The Program

The Cambridge Summer Food Service Program serves meals in five parks throughout the city. At peak points of the summer, the program serves approximately 775 breakfasts, 850 lunches and 150 snacks per day. In addition to the five parks, which are open sites where anyone under age 19 can receive a free lunch, there are over 20 closed sites throughout the city that provide meals to kids enrolled in summer camps and youth programs.

The open meal sites are intentionally located in areas of the city with a high percentage of students who qualify for free and reduced-price lunches at school. For example, several of the meal sites are located near public housing developments. This proximity offers these young residents easy access to both a healthy lunch and physical activity throughout the summer.

Cambridge Summer Food Service Program staff serve meals at the open sites from 11:30 a.m. — 12:30 p.m. each weekday. Before lunch, staff from the Cambridge Recreation Department leads an hour of exercise and movement to give kids the opportunity to be active. Local teenagers, hired through the Cambridge Recreation Department, assist at the meal sites by leading and helping out with activities and distributing lunches.

DHSP also partners with a local dance company that goes to one of the meal sites each week to offer a special activity such as African dance lessons or a Zumba class. Additionally, the community’s Book Bike stops at a different meal site each day to hand out free books and activities to kids. Meal program staff has found that on days when a meal site is hosting a special activity or the Book Bike, there is a substantial increase in the number of kids who come to the site to receive lunch. Cambridge Book Bike is a collaboration of the Agenda for Children Literacy Initiative, Center for Families, and Cambridge Public Library.

Promoting the Summer Food Service Program

Advertising the special weekly activities within the community is one way DHSP makes families aware of the Cambridge Summer Food Service Program and attracts young people to the meal sites. In addition, DHSP distributes flyers about the program at Cambridge Public Schools and at community organizations that serve kids and families. DHSP also uses social media to promote the program and post information about the activities being offered at the different sites.

By adopting the slogan “Let’s Move! Let’s Eat! Let’s Read!” and featuring it on all promotional materials, the Cambridge Summer Food Service Program developed a catchy and easily identifiable brand within the community. To make the program even more recognizable, Cambridge Summer Food Service Program staff wear branded shirts at the meal sites and hang up a banner promoting the availability of free food and physical activity.

The Cambridge Summer Food Service Program’s partners also promote the program. The Cambridge Public Health Department, in particular, promotes the program by reaching out to its network of community members. In addition, DHSP has a Community Engagement Team that promotes the availability of free meals and activities for youth to underserved families in the community.

Lessons Learned

Over the years, DHSP staff have learned that the logistics of running a summer meal program are often challenging. Meals have to be delivered to over 25 open and closed meal sites every day in time for lunch. Creating further complications, these deliveries must be heavily coordinated with the youth programs and day camps at the closed sites, because oftentimes kids must take the lunches with them on field trips. Because of these logistics, DHSP staff say it is necessary for the program to serve cold rather than hot meals. Cold meals are easier to keep fresh and make it more manageable to accommodate the needs of each meal site.

Cambridge DHSP staff emphasize the benefits that collaborating with community partners can offer. Collaboration allows for the flow of ideas and can help cities, towns and counties find creative ways to expand their programming for young people. Working with community partners to come up with fun activities or plan special events is a great way to attract local youth to the meal sites so they can eat a healthy lunch and get moving.