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Middlebury to host free lunch site

MIDDLEBURY — We’ve all heard the old saying, “There’s no such thing as a free lunch.”
Well, children and teens (ages 2 through 18) who find themselves in Middlebury this summer will have access to free lunch regardless of their resources, thanks to new household income demographics that allow Addison County’s shire town to finally meet federal guidelines as a summer meal site.
The lunches, which will be hosted at the Middlebury Recreation Park, are designed to ensure that area kids don’t go hungry during the summer, when the school breakfasts and lunches they have come to depend on suddenly go on hiatus.
“I’m very excited to be a part of this,” Middlebury Parks & Recreation Director Terri Arnold said of a program that organizers are calling “Middlebury Nourishes.”
Other organizers are the Mary Johnson Children’s Center (MJCC), Middsummer Lunch and Recreation Program, Addison Central Teens and the Ilsley Library.
In the past, Middlebury has not quite qualified for the federal program that funds the local free meals initiative. A community can qualify as an open site for free summer meals through the federal Summer Food Service Program only if more than half of its school-age population is eligible for free or reduced-price lunches. That translates to an annual income of up to $43,356 for a household of four, according to the Vermont Agency of Education.
Addison County towns including Bristol, Vergennes, Bridport and Shoreham have already met the 50-percent threshold and have been offering free and open summer meal sites for years. The qualifying communities are responsible for procuring the food and assembling a workforce to dispense it.
The United States Department of Agriculture reimburses participating communities at a rate of $2.02 per breakfast and $3.54 per lunch, according to Mary Johnson Co-Director Barbara Saunders.
Middlebury has, in recent years, been on the cusp of having 50 percent of its student population qualifying for free or reduced school lunches. Now, the latest statistics confirm that Middlebury has met the threshold, Saunders said on Monday.
A big reason is that figures show 59 percent of Mary Hogan Elementary School kindergartners qualifying for free and reduced school lunches. Middlebury will qualify for the free summer lunches for the next five years, even if its income demographics trend upward.
MJCC has experience in offering lunches: The Middlebury nonprofit has for many years provided lunches at the Mary Johnson Summer School-Age Program and the Middsummer Lunch and Recreation Program at Mary Hogan, and to the Middlebury Union High and Middle schools and Counseling Service of Addison County summer programs. All of these have added up to around 135 breakfasts and 200 lunches per day.
With Middlebury’s new designation as an open summer meal community, participating children no longer have to be affiliated with a specific program to receive a free lunch, Saunders explained.
“And you do not have to be a Middlebury resident to eat,” Saunders said. “We will not be checking IDs.”
So from June 23 to Aug. 8, all children and teens will be welcome to drop in for lunch Monday through Friday at noon at the recreation park, regardless of whether they are participating in an organized summer program. There will be a tent set up at the park where meals will be served at no cost. Middlebury’s Ilsley Public Library will also offer free lunches on Fridays.
The lunches will include locally sourced food and meet USDA nutritional standards, Saunders said. Each meal will feature a protein, vegetable and a grain-based food.
Menus will feature such foods as barbecue chicken, macaroni and cheese, pizza, tomato soup, milk, vegetables, fruit, spaghetti, fajitas, tuna sandwiches, pulled pork, black bean and rice burritos, and chicken teriyaki. Grilled cheese sandwiches will also always be on hand for finicky eaters.
Susan Pratt, who coordinates the food service at Cornwall’s Bingham Memorial School, will prepare the food using the Mary Hogan kitchen.
Saunders estimates the seven-week meal program will cost $30,000 to $35,000. She hopes the program will break even with the USDA funding; if not, some fundraising might be required.
A “Hunger Doesn’t Take a Vacation” report released Monday by the Food Research and Action Center (FRAC) shows Vermont ranks fifth in the nation in use of the federal Summer Food Service Program.
But while Vermont continues to be a leader in making summer meals available, fewer than one in four of the 37,000 children who rely on school-year meals accessed summer meals in 2013, according to the report. By promoting summer meal sites, sponsors hope to increase the number of children participating.
Local officials believe the free lunches will be well received by the community.
Arnold was director of the South Whidbey Parks and Recreation District in Washington State when that town qualified for an open site for free summer lunches. She said prospective users were a little hesitant to accept the food at first, but soon became regulars and invited friends and family to participate as well.
“It is something that is near and dear to my heart,” she said of the program.
Reporter John Flowers is at johnf@addisonindependent.com.

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