Summer lunches help state combat childhood hunger

A middle school student serves himself from in the cafeteria at Harwood Union High and Middle School. Photo by Alicia Freese

A middle school student serves himself from in the cafeteria at Harwood Union High and Middle School. File photo by Alicia Freese/VTDigger

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.”

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  • Pam Ladds

    What a sad reflection on a country that is allegedly the richest in the world. It is terrific that programs exist to make a difference for kids who would otherwise be hungry. However, we have a system that allows Corporations to pay wages that are not livable. So that their Corporate bottom line can support their grossly excessive executive pay! I have no problem with supporting families and individuals in need. Corporate welfare is another matter.

  • Wayne Andrews

    So the parents are working and the children need a meal in their absence? What’s next a taxi ride paid for by the taxpayers to get the child to the food site?

    • Paul Richards

      Be careful there Wayne. You know that it’s not their fault. It’s the corporations, the CORPORATIONS! They are not paying their people enough so this is what we have. At least Seattle is raising their minimum wage to $15/hr. I’m sure that will help all the way around. Actually what we have is exactly what our government wants us to have. We have class warfare between every possible division. We have the politicians manipulating our money to get the results they want all the while they get rich and gain power.
      It’s not the corporations. The last I knew the corporations don’t write the tax code. The last I knew there were FAR more small businesses than there are large “corporations” but they are all lumped together in this newly fundamentally transformed America and are all a bunch of crooks in the minds of the liberals. That is exactly what the President wants to see; division and unrest. Whatever it takes to tear this country down. It’s working.
      What our liberal statist government wants is complete control of everyone from cradle to grave. They are almost there. That will insure their complete control and power over us all. It will also result in the fall of America.

    • Jason Wells

      Ever think that the parents are working as hard as they can for low pay sometimes at multiple jobs? A lot of people who could once afford to pay the mortgage and feed the family have lost their jobs and now make much less through no fault of their own. Unhealthy kids tend to not do as well in school and have other issues as a result. If we dont help them now they will become more costly for us in the future welfare health costs etc.

  • Larry Hopkins

    I agree Wayne.

    Its getting so parental responsibilities are more and more falling back on the paying individuals.
    If people cant afford to support their own kids, then don’t have them.

    A more logical handout would be “free condoms” !

  • Wayne Andrews

    Jason: The old message was kids could not do so well AT school on an empty stomach has now morphed itself into a message that kids who are hungry tend not to do as well in school.

  • Peggy Lipscomb

    When you add up ALL the costs associated with these feeding programs, wouldn’t it make a lot more sense to double the food stamps amount and have families go back to feeding their own kids again. When I was a kid my school lunch (brought from home and eaten in the classroom) was a peanut butter and raisin sandwich and an apple — same thing every day. We weren’t poor, either. Just not a high priority. If a parent can’t handle a lunch like that we need more social workers, not feeding programs. Most of those “healthy” lunches end up in the trash.

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