Nonprofits, schools keep lunch on the menu for Upper Valley kids this summer

  • Sheyanne Labrie, 7, of Claremont, her mother Cassandra Starkweather, bottom right, and stepfather, Nicholas Reeder, talk with Courtney Porter, a social worker for SAU 6, the free lunch program at Maple Avenue School in Claremont, N.H., Thursday, June 27, 2019. About 35 student meals and 10 adult meals are prepared in the morning by the Claremont Soup Kitchen, and Porter serves them beginning at 11:30. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Barbara Doolittle, a retired Claremont third grade teacher, serves milk to Daniel Vaninwagen, 6, during the free lunch program at Maple Avenue School in Claremont, N.H., Thursday, June 27, 2019. Vaninwagen attended the meal with a group from the Calvary Baptist Church vacation bible school. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Zaire Winfield, 7, of Springfield, laughs with Sarah Frisch, 7, of Claremont, as she blows bubbles in her milk at the free lunch at Maple Avenue School in Claremont, N.H., Thursday, June 27, 2019. Winfield and Frisch attended the meal after their last day of vacation bible school at the Calvary Baptist Church. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Karen Little, left, and Charen Urban both of Newport, N.H., unpack non-perishable items for summer lunches at the South Congregational Church in Newport, on Thursday, June 27, 2019. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

Valley News Staff Writer
Published: 6/29/2019 10:09:32 PM

Though she taught at Newport High School for 28 years, it took Charen Urban a while to realize that students in town might have trouble getting the food they need in the summertime.

The subject came up almost two years ago during a phone call with the Greater Sullivan County Public Health Network in which organizers of Got Lunch! Laconia described their approach of delivering bags of healthy groceries to Laconia families once a week during the summer months.

Urban said her reaction was to do a “TV sitcom head slap.”

“How could you not have thought of this?” she said she asked herself at the time of the call. “How can a family that’s struggling all of a sudden come up with 10 more meals per week per child?”

Many communities across the Upper Valley now are offering free breakfasts and lunches to children in the summer in an effort to fill the void left when they’re not in school, where they have access to meals. The way those summer meals are delivered varies somewhat by community, but the goal is the same: to get healthy food to kids, especially those who qualify for free and reduced-price meals during the school year.

“Awareness has really been elevated in the last few years,” said Rebecca Mitchell, child nutrition initiatives manager for the nonprofit advocacy group Hunger Free Vermont.

Summer meal programs help nourish children through the summer months so they are better ready to learn when they return to school in the fall, Mitchell said. The programs also can offer a chance for children to socialize with others during summer vacation, which sometimes can be an isolating time, especially for those living in rural areas.

“It’s a meaningful, impactful program (that) bolsters community connections,” Mitchell said.

Last summer, U.S. Department of Agriculture food programs served nearly 428,000 meals at almost 300 sites across Vermont, according to data from the Vermont Agency of Education. In New Hampshire, more than 337,000 summer meals were served last year, according to Cheri White, administrator of the Office of Nutrition Programs and Services at the New Hampshire Department of Education.

Though transportation can be a challenge, some communities have found creative ways to bring food to children who need it, some using USDA funding and others raising money locally. That may be hosting free meals in central locations such as schools and libraries where children may already be congregating for summer school or reading programs. In other cases, volunteers have taken on the burden of bringing meals to children’s homes or summer camps.

In Newport, where about 50% of students qualify for free or reduced-price lunch, the school district provides free breakfast and lunch to children who are 18 and younger at the Richards School in conjunction with the summer school program there, which this year runs from July 8 to Aug. 8. While that works well for some, it doesn’t meet all the community’s needs, Urban said.

Last summer, Urban and other volunteers began distributing bags of food to children in Newport; Lempster, N.H.; Goshen, N.H.; and Sunapee. For their nonprofit, organized under the umbrella of the South Congregational Church, they get shelf-stable foods from the New Hampshire Food Bank and shop the sales at area supermarkets.

Each Monday during the summer, the volunteers put together the bags, which include cereal, bread, fresh fruit, vegetables, applesauce, milk, cheese, eggs and condiments, as well as ingredients for a sandwich of the week such as tuna fish or peanut butter and jelly, and a recipe of the week for family meals such as a Mexican casserole. About one-third of the families pick up the bags, while about two-thirds get theirs delivered.

Word of the program spread with the help of volunteers’ including information in the weekend food backpacks that the Newport Food Pantry provides during the school year.

The summer food program has become so popular that Urban said it is just about maxed out in the number of children it can serve for now. Volunteers began by serving 40 children in the first week of the summer last year and are now up to 94 children per week, Urban said.

If new families apply, Urban said, “anything we could provide, we would.”

But the group has reached the limits of its delivery route drivers and the money it can stretch for dairy products, she said.

This year for the first time, Weathersfield School, where the percentage of students who qualify for free and reduced-price lunch sits at almost 40%, will begin providing free lunches to students who attend the summer school program for students going into grades 1 to 8 during the month of July. Meals will be prepared in Windsor, which has three summer meal sites, and volunteers will pick them up and bring them to Weathersfield, according to JeanMarie Oakman, Weathersfield School’s principal.

“We’re interested in getting healthy food into the hands of as many children as we can,” Oakman said.

To that end, she said, she’s not yet sure whether children will eat the meals at the school at 11:30 a.m., before they go home for the day or take them home where they could share with younger siblings.

The summer lunch program fits into the school’s broader efforts to teach kids about all aspects of health, including nutrition and exercise, Oakman said.

In previous years, the summer school, which includes about 30 students, has provided snacks such as watermelon or raspberries and encouraged the kids to drink lots of water, Oakman said. Other efforts to get food to Weathersfield families in the past have included picking up produce from a nearby prison garden to bring to a popular spot for area homeless people, and planting a community garden at the school.

Summer lunch is on the menu for this year, but depending how it goes the school might try something else in the future, Oakman said.

“The notion behind this summer lunch thing is all kids should have access to food,” Oakman said. “Do you have kids that might be hungry? Is there a vehicle you can (use to) get food to them?”

After three years of teaming up with the New Hampshire Food Bank to provide meals to Claremont children, the Claremont Soup Kitchen has taken on the responsibility of hiring the necessary staff, preparing the food and advertising to area families on its own for the first time this year.

With two of four sites open so far, the soup kitchen and the Maple Avenue Elementary School, the soup kitchen is currently providing 50 meals a day. Sites at the Claremont Middle School and Disnard Elementary School are set to open Monday.

“This year has been amazing so far,” said Cindy Stevens, the soup kitchen’s executive director.

In Claremont, where about 50% of students qualify for free and reduced-price lunch, Stevens said meals are available to anyone who comes, including unaccompanied children (though they prefer that the kids be at least 6 if they come on their own) and adult caregivers. The soup kitchen uses its own funds to subsidize the adult meals.

Volunteers in Hartford and Lebanon team up to provide meals to adults as well as children through an open site at the White River School and through deliveries to summer schools, recreation camp programs, the Upper Valley Haven and Twin Pines Housing Trust developments.

“You really need to go to where the students are,” said Barbara Farnsworth, president of the board of the Hartford Community Coalition, one of the groups involved in the effort. “Just opening your door doesn’t really work.”

The effort is primarily funded through private donations, though the White River School meals are offered through a USDA food program because more than 50% of students there qualify for free or reduced-price lunches.

In addition to feeding people who might otherwise go hungry, Farnsworth said the effort also provides volunteers with the chance to give back.

“It’s a way for the community to be able to support and care for others in their community,” she said.

Those seeking food in the summer months can text “food” to 877-877 to find a meal site nearby.

Nora Doyle-Burr can be reached at ndoyleburr@vnews.com or 603-727-3213.




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