Summer doesn’t mean vacation for Milton Food Services Director Steve Marinelli. Once school lets out, Marinelli will be responsible for providing food for six of Vermont’s estimated 235 summer meal programs.
“Once we really get rocking,” Marinelli said, he’ll deliver 200-300 breakfasts and 500 lunches a day to locations in Milton, Colchester and Essex. As part of the national Summer Food Service Program funded by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, he’ll help provide free lunches to summer schools, camps, library programs and whichever kids wander in at lunch time.
Milton is a cog in the network of Vermont’s summer meal program, which was recently ranked fifth in the nation by the Food Research Action Committee for having the highest percentage of students who qualify for school lunch programs participating during the summer.
During the summer of 2013, an average of 6,673 students participated daily in the summer nutrition program, 25.9 percent of the 25,757 students who qualify for subsidized school lunches in Vermont.
The USDA administers the national Summer Food Service Program, working with state organizations such as Hunger Free Vermont and the Vermont Agency of Education. The Agency of Education allocates the federal money to schools, towns and nonprofit groups.
“We are really proud of our efforts at Hunger Free Vermont, combined with a lot of schools and Agency of Education staff and local organizations working together,” said Anore Horton, child nutrition advocacy manager for Hunger Free Vermont.
“But at the same time,” she said, “it’s important to understand that nationwide, the opportunity for kids to access meals is very shaky. We reach 25 percent of the kids who are on free or reduced lunch and we’re ranked fifth. … We still have a long, long way to go to reach 100 percent of the kids who need it.”
When the opportunity for free lunch ends with the school year, Horton explained, many Vermont families have nothing to fill the gap.
“Summer is a very vulnerable time for children and low-income families,” she said. “Their expenses increase and they need some place for kids to go that is safe when they’re working and there’s no school.”
Vermont ranked behind the District of Columbia, New Mexico, New York and Connecticut in the national standings. The Food Research Action Committee (FRAC), a national nonprofit, seeks to influence national and state policy, conducts research and works with organizations at all levels to address hunger, nutrition and poverty issues.
This summer, meal programs will be held in churches, in schools, public libraries, recreation department camps and even a few senior centers. Some sites just offer meals; for others, the meals are incorporated into summer school, enrichment, athletic or church-sponsored activities, summer camps and reading programs.
The programs are universal, serving any student who shows up. That’s great for the kids, Horton said, as it “eliminates stigma and reaches as many students as possible.” The only eligibility requirement is that the site be located in a school district in which more than half of the students qualify for subsidized lunches.
Nevertheless, organizers agreed, when one in six Vermont children are without proper nutrition, hunger persists as an issue among Vermont families. And the kids pay the price, said Nancy Lewis, child nutrition consultant for the Agency of Education: “They’re the victims of stresses or whatever is happening in families.”
Last summer’s participation figure marked a 3.1 percent drop from 2012, when the state was ranked fourth.
“There are a lot of challenges reaching everybody in our rural isolated communities,” Lewis said. “There have to be meal sites set up, and it’s congregate — it’s not like we can bag lunches and drop them off.”
She also cited the challenges of providing transportation to kids, raising awareness, reaching families who live rurally or far from the center of town, and the logistics of ensuring that meal sites are operating consistently throughout the summer.
Horton attributed the drop in total meals served to a decrease in the length of summer programs and activities. Due to lack of funding, the average length dropped from 27 to 23 total days of activities and meals.
This summer, however, she expects the progress to rise once again. Hunger Free Vermont has added sites, expanding to public libraries and senior centers, which, Horton said, may be able to provide consistent meals from the end of school through August.
In Milton, Steve Marinelli is also optimistic about the way the program is headed.
“This is our third year providing meals,” he said. “The first year there was a little stigma for getting a free meal.”
But not anymore.
“The comfort level has been the success of the program. We’re getting recognition with the kids and in the community. It’s a culture that’s happening in our school and community.”