Giant food sculptures spell the word “love” outside Mount Vernon Woods Elementary School in Fairfax County. On June 28, the school hosted a kickoff event for a summer barbecue program that will feed any child under 18 free of cost. The program aims to reach those who rely on schools for free, nutritious meals during the school year. (Calla Kessler/The Washington Post)

All summer, when his students in Northern Virginia are supposed to be enjoying time away from the classroom, Clint Mitchell worries about whether the children who rely on free lunches during the school year are getting enough to eat.

“Every day, we think about it,” said the principal of Mount Vernon Woods Elementary. “You don’t know what happens when they go home.”

More than 90 percent of the students at his school in Fairfax County qualify for free or reduced-price meals. How they eat in the summer could be crucial not only to their health but also to their future academic success. This week, the county school system launched an expanded effort to address that need through an old-fashioned method: community barbecues.

Of the millions of students nationwide eligible for subsidized school meals, only about 16 percent receive free summer meals, according to No Kid Hungry, an advocacy group. The problem also exists in Fairfax. More than 50,000 children in the county schools are eligible for free and reduced-price meals, but many cafeterias shut down when school is out or serve only children in short-term summer programs.

The free lunch served at the summer barbecue at Mount Vernon Woods Elementary School in Fairfax County on June 28, 2017. (Calla Kessler/The Washington Post)

Rodney Taylor, the school district’s director of food and nutrition services, aims to change that by moving the summer feeding program out of cafeterias and onto front lawns, hosting outdoor barbecues at 11 schools, four apartment complexes and a community center.

“We wanted to provide a festive atmosphere, not one that says ‘You’re poor, come and eat with us,’ ” Taylor said. “It takes away the stigma of feeding a meal to the poor.” He can relate: He said he grew up in Southern California without enough to eat.

Taylor began the barbecue program last summer, as schools began to cut back summer programming during which many children had received meals. School cafeterias served nearly 192,000 meals last summer, about 34,000 fewer than in summer 2015.

Taylor aims to reach a broader population with the barbecues. The program served 64,000 meals to children last summer at 10 sites and expanded to 16 sites this summer countywide. All children, regardless of whether they are eligible for free meals during the school year, eat free, while adults pay $2. The lunches will be served every weekday until Aug. 26, except for Monday and the following day, the Fourth of July.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture, which funds the school lunch program when schools are in session, shoulders some of the cost, providing partial reimbursements to the school district for summer meals. The district contributed a little more than $200,000 to the summer barbecue program last year, with the rest supported by adult meal sales and $233,000 in USDA funds.

On Wednesday, Taylor and a bevy of public officials held a festival to kick off the summer meals program, drawing dozens of families to the front lawn of Mount Vernon Woods Elementary.

Virginia first lady Dorothy McAuliffe, an advocate for funding to encourage more eligible children to eat school breakfasts, commended Taylor for helping to “set a new standard in summer meals programming for community engagement, a model that is beginning to be replicated across the commonwealth.”

“Every child should have the opportunity to experience the joy of summerhood,” McAuliffe told the crowd. “And that’s really what all of the grown-ups standing here today want for our kids.”

McAuliffe said there is still work to be done; 5 in 6 children in Virginia who are eligible for free and reduced-price school lunches do not get free summer meals, and only 91 of the state’s 132 school divisions serve food in the summer.

During the afternoon, people shimmied on the lawn to pop and hip-hop music pumped out by loudspeakers, while the smells of grilled hamburgers and hot dogs wafted through the warm air. Boisterous children bounced from hula hoop contests to a bike obstacle course, while grown-ups collected free produce from the local food bank.

The lunch menu featured hamburgers, cheeseburgers, chicken sandwiches, black bean patties, hot dogs, baked beans and a helping of baby carrots or sliced apples, all served on disposable paper trays.

Adam Kottir, a 9-year-old who will be in fifth grade next school year at Mount Vernon Woods, sat on the grass, munching on carrots, and gave the cheeseburger an enthusiastic thumbs-up. His father, Mostafa Kottir, a crossing guard in Arlington County, said he took his two sons to the event not just to collect a free meal, but also to socialize.

“It’s not about the money for the food. It’s about the people getting together: the children, the parents,” Kottir said. “It’s like a picnic.”

A 14-year-old kept a close eye on his younger sister as she cautiously navigated the bike obstacle course. He cares for two younger siblings while his mother works. The rising Mount Vernon High School freshman said there is sometimes not quite enough to eat at home. This summer, he’ll spend weekday afternoons at Mount Vernon Woods Elementary with his two little sisters to eat lunch free.

“I come here every day now,” he said.

Ana Garcia attended the program kickoff with her daughter Sophia, 10, who will be in fifth grade at Mount Vernon Woods. Garcia, who works at Chuck E. Cheese’s, showed off the fresh fruits and vegetables she collected from a stand set up by the food bank, and the new T-shirt she got at the event.

“It’s beautiful, because everyone gets together,” Garcia said.