Area Summer Meal Programs Evolve

Valley News Staff Writer
Published: 5/11/2018 11:25:57 PM
Modified: 5/11/2018 11:26:12 PM

Lebanon — As most Upper Valley schools prepare to let out next month, some school officials and public health advocates are gearing up for summer meal programs.

Such programs, often supported by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, help to bring free, healthy food to children who might not get it otherwise. But a recent report from the Public Health Council of the Upper Valley found that, as is frequently the case, Upper Valley programs often are underutilized.

Program organizers “really didn’t feel that they were serving all of the kids that needed the program,” said Alice Ely, executive director of the Public Health Council.

Though the rates of food insecurity in the Twin States are not the highest in the country, there still are plenty of people who struggle to get healthful food. In Windsor and Orange counties, 11 percent of people were food insecure in 2016, according to data from Feeding America, which is a network of 200 food banks in the U.S. In Grafton County, 10 percent of people were food insecure, and in Sullivan County about 9 percent were.

Rates of children experiencing food insecurity tend to be higher than that of the general population. Several of the communities that host summer meal programs have more than 50 percent of children who qualify for free or reduced lunch.

Beyond access, Ely said, there are issues related to the quality of the food people are eating. About 30 percent of New Hampshire children were overweight or obese, according to the Healthy Smiles-Healthy Growth survey of the state’s third-graders in the 2013-14 school year.

“One of the issues for a summer meal program is the question of healthy food,” Ely said.

Such meals emphasize fruits, vegetables and protein and de-emphasize sugar and fats, she said.

Poor nutrition can affect children’s school performance, said Anore Horton, the acting executive director of Hunger Free Vermont. If in addition to poor nutrition, students also lack access to stimulating activities in the summer, they can lose as much as three months’ worth of reading and math skills each summer, she said.

And, she noted, “We have a lot of concerns in Vermont about an economically based achievement gap in our schools.”

Beyond the children, summer months can be a challenge for the whole family, Horton said. If a family is living paycheck to paycheck to afford basic needs such as food, clothing, rent, electricity and gas, adding the cost of additional meals for children who are not getting them at school in the summer can mean the family scrimps in other areas.

It “puts a lot of stress on families with kids overall,” she said.

Last summer, the Hartford Take a Bite Out of Hunger program served 10,643 meals, Windsor Summer Meals served 1,076 meals, Lebanon Lunch Friends served 6,770 meals and the Mascoma Seamless Summer Option served 3,360 breakfasts and 4,763 lunches, according to the Public Health Council’s March report.

The report urged summer meal program coordinators to boost usage by increasing awareness of the meals, incorporating meals into other summer activities, offering meals at central locations such as schools or libraries, working with neighboring communities, allowing meals to be eaten off-site, reaching out to teens and offering flexible menus.

As Windsor prepares for its second year serving up summer meals, Wendy Moody, the Windsor program’s coordinator, said she has made some adjustments compared with last year.

The program could not operate at the Windsor schools last year because the school did not meet the USDA threshold of at least 50 percent of students qualifying for free or reduced price lunch, Moody said. This year, however, they did meet the threshold, so they will be offering meals at the school.

In addition, Moody is working with the school’s food service provider Cafe Services to make the menu more attractive to kids. Such changes include adding chicken nuggets, opting for a chicken-bacon-ranch wrap instead of a “normal” turkey sub and adding a chicken patty sandwich.

If kids like the meals they receive, Moody said, she’s certain that word will spread about the program.

“The goal for us is to sustain what was started last year,” she said. The first year of a program often is the most difficult.

Debra Ford, business administrator of the Mascoma Valley Regional School District, said it took a couple years for her district’s summer meals program to begin operating smoothly.

Mascoma’s program, which began in 2016, serves meals in Enfield and Canaan at school-based summer programs and to kids participating in the recreation department’s summer camps. One private daycare operator picks up meals for the children in her care.

“This year we felt like: ‘Wow. We almost feel like we know what we’re doing,’ ” Ford said.

Though Ford said, “I think people are aware of it now,” one major obstacle to getting food to children in rural areas is transportation.

While students are in school, they have the school bus to get them to and fro, but in the summertime there is no such transportation and parents may be at work and unable to take children to serving sites to pick up a meal, said John Sayles, CEO of Vermont Foodbank.

“If a meal program doesn’t also have an all-day structure around it ... it’s hard,” he said.

Lebanon’s program, which began last year, focuses on providing meals to people living in subsidized housing developments: Rivermere Community Housing, Romano Circle and the Village at Crafts Hill.

Faye Grearson, director of supportive services for Twin Pines Housing Trust — a nonprofit that owns Rivermere and the Village at Crafts Hill — said the meals helped build a sense of community in the two housing developments.

“It gives us a timing (and) framework to build other things,” Grearson said.

For example, in addition to meals, the Lebanon program offered a literacy program last year. Because the program is privately funded — which is necessary because, at about 23 percent, Lebanon has relatively low rates of students who qualify for free and reduced-price lunch — it has greater flexibility than the programs bound by USDA rules.

Free meals are available to both children and adults in Lebanon. This year, they plan on shifting the time meals are available to 4 p.m. in an effort to catch families after work, Ely said. The Lebanon program also is planning to add meals for a school-based summer program this year, Ely said. She anticipated that would add another 75 to 100 meals per day.

To attract teens, who are difficult to get to summer meal programs, Horton suggests that programs serve meals as part of a project such as building a community garden or working with younger children. The community garden option has the added value of involving kids in growing fruits and vegetables.

“That’s how you can effectively introduce healthy foods,” she said.

Vermonters seeking a summer meal program near them can call 211. The USDA has a searchable map available at Those in need also can text the word “food” and their zip code to 877-877 for the location of the closest USDA-affiliated programs.

Nora Doyle-Burr can be reached at or 603-727-3213.

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