County towns could get help feeding kids this summer

MIDDLEBURY — State and local human services providers are trying to recruit more Addison County communities to host summer meal programs to make sure children from low-income families continue to have access to nutritious breakfasts and lunches when school is out of session.
Marissa Parisi, executive director of Hunger Free Vermont, said nine Addison County communities currently qualify for federal aid to run free and open summer meal programs. Those towns are Starksboro, Bristol, Vergennes, Bridport, Shoreham, Whiting, Leicester, Hancock and Granville. But unfortunately, only four of those nine communities host summer meal programs, according to Parisi: Bristol, Leicester, Vergennes and Starksboro.
The nine communities qualify because more than 50 percent of the students in those towns are eligible for free or reduced-price school lunches — or they have met that threshold during the past five years. Such towns continue to qualify for five consecutive years, even if they go below the 50-percent threshold. As such, they are eligible to receive free food to distribute to those children, courtesy of the federal Summer Food Service Program.
Many families with limited means rely heavily on the free or discounted breakfasts and lunches their children receive during the school year, according to Parisi. Those meals, like students, go on hiatus in most communities during the summer, which can pose a hardship to some families.
“We don’t want that gap to exist for children who are at risk,” Parisi said.
With that in mind, Hunger Free Vermont’s “Hunger Council of Addison County” convened in Middlebury on March 11 to discuss ways of expanding the summer meal program into more eligible communities. Hunger Free Vermont is a statewide, nonprofit organization that works with state agencies and community groups to end hunger and malnutrition for all Vermonters. The Hunger Council of Addison County includes officials from local agencies that work with low-income families, including Helping Overcome Poverty’s Effects (HOPE) and the Parent-Child Center of Addison County.
One of the council’s main strategies will be getting more applications out to families who might qualify for free or reduced-price breakfasts and lunches. According to the Vermont Agency of Education, a household of four must earn less than $43,568 in order to qualify for the program. Officials noted there are several Addison County communities that fall just short of meeting the 50-percent threshold of free or reduced-price meal recipients needed to get funding for free and open summer meal program funds.
Mary Hogan Elementary School in Middlebury is at 46 percent, or 18 students short of meeting the 50-percent threshold. Orwell Village School is at 44 percent, or just seven students short. Salisbury is just 8 students short of meeting the guideline.
It should be noted that there are several programs in Addison County that offer summer meals to young participants. These “closed enrolled sites” operate in areas that have not reached the 50 percent free and reduced threshold. Such sites offer meals to a certain group of children enrolled at the site, but are not free and open to the public. Middlebury, New Haven, Addison and Vergennes are home to such programs that feed children for at least a portion of the summer.
Parisi said it would be particularly beneficial if Middlebury — a hub for the county — were to qualify for a free, open summer meal site.
“With only a few more kids, Middlebury would be eligible,” Parisi said. “And Middlebury is where a lot of kids live. Opening up eligibility to the town of Middlebury would help more organizations and after-school programs.”
Hunger Free Vermont has helped set up around 300 summer meals programs throughout the state, according to Parisi. These programs typically run from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. and can offer an educational or recreational component. For example, some of the programs are hosted at libraries, where the participating children can read or be read to. Other programs are held outdoors. The host sites are reimbursed for the food they prepare and distribute. The meals must include fruit, vegetables, a lean protein, whole grains and fluid milk, Parisi said.
Officials acknowledged that the more rural towns — like Hancock and Granville — face some challenges in establishing a summer meals site. Those two towns no longer operate schools (they tuition their students to other towns) and children might have a challenge traveling to a central location for meals. But Parisi said Hunger Free Vermont will work with communities to overcome transportation and site hurdles.
“There are challenges in rural communities, but they are not insurmountable,” Parisi said.
She noted how the town of Gilman was able to site its summer meal program at its local senior center. So the kids not only get a free meal, they get a story hour, courtesy of the local seniors.
Donna Bailey, co-director of the Parent-Child Center of Addison County, is hoping her organization will be able to help put food in kids’ bellies. She said the center was recently promised the donation of a food truck. Center officials are now talking about how to best use that vehicle. Bailey reasoned that it could instill job skills in some of the center’s young parent clients, or perhaps it could be a way to deliver food to hungry kids in rural areas. She said the truck could also take human services staff to clients who might not have a ride into Middlebury, where most of the county nonprofits are based.
The food truck has no deep fryer, so it is set up to serve healthier food. Bailey stressed the Parent-Child Center at this point is just brainstorming ideas on the best use of the vehicle, and it will take some fundraising and/or grants to keep the vehicle on the road.
“This is an opportunity that jumped onto our laps, and we want to share it,” Bailey said of the food truck.
Reporter John Flowers is at [email protected].

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