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Behind the Scenes at Free Food & Summer Fun

Wednesday, December 13, 2023
" Many staff start in early high school and return to the program each summer. It creates a great sense of community for our team. "

  • Logistics include bidding for the program’s food vendor, recruiting staff, and managing the reimbursement process.  

  • The program has significantly evolved to better serve residents.  


This past summer, the Cambridge Summer Food Program served nearly 61,000 breakfasts, lunches and dinners to Cambridge children ages 18 and under. At any of the program’s nine public food sites across the city, youth could join staff in games and activities at local parks. The program also provided free lunches to 41 local camps. Behind a summer of free food and fun is the critical mission to address food insecurity in Cambridge. And lots of logistics.  

The Summer Food Program is managed by the Department of Human Service Programs’ Summer Food and Fuel Assistance Office. Planning for the program begins in February when the City puts out a bid for food vendors that are required to provide nutritious meals, vegetarian options, and daily delivery of meals. In early spring, staff reach out to local camps to confirm if they are eligible to receive free breakfast and lunch meals. Then they submit an application to the State — which regulates the program — detailing information about each summer food site.  

Recruitment for staff also begins in the spring. Summer Food staff work with Cambridge Recreation to recruit more than 30 young people to work for the program. Cambridge high school students are hired to hand out meals and play with kids at public food sites.  

“Our collaboration with Recreation is unbelievable,” says Claudia Cruz, the program’s director. “Many staff start in early high school and return to the program each summer. It creates a great sense of community for our team.”  

The Office’s four full-time staff run trainings before the start of the program and monitor all 50 sites throughout the summer to make sure they are following state regulations and training guidelines. The State reimburses the City for costs if food sites are located in an area with a high concentration of low-income households (based on U.S. Census Data) or if at least 50 percent of children enrolled at a camp qualify for Free and Reduced Lunch. Cruz manages the reimbursement process, providing monthly reports of meals received and consumed at each site.

Like many programs that provide essential services, the Summer Food Program evolved during the COVID-19 pandemic to meet community needs. In 2019, operating from the end of June until mid-August, it consisted of approximately 28 sites (including six public sites) and required meals to be consumed on-site. In 2020 and 2021, the state waived guidelines and the program expanded to 50 total site (nine public locations) and was able to offer “Grab-N-Go” options, with the program extended until Labor Day. 

“When waivers were lifted in 2022, we worked with DHSP leadership and City leaders to preserve the program’s expansion by allocating City funding to operate sites that no longer qualified for state reimbursement,” explains Cruz. “We wanted to make sure we could continue providing meals to the community in the way they came to rely upon during the pandemic.” 

This community-centered approach is central to the operation of the Summer Food Program. For the 2023 season, that meant another partnership with Cambridge Recreation to use the War Memorial Recreation Center as a meal distribution site during rainy days. Prior to this change, outdoor sites had to close during inclement weather to follow state guidelines. 

“We are always thinking of ways that we can better serve Cambridge residents,” says Cruz. 

In August, before the Summer Food Program ends, the office’s full-time staff begins preparing for the Fuel Assistance Program that provides heating bill assistance to eligible low-income households in Cambridge and Somerville.  

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