Schools out, but kids can still get free lunches

ADDISON COUNTY — With the first signs of summer come expectations of sun, lemonade, popsicles and, here in Vermont, fresh fruit and vegetables. 
However, for those children who qualify for free or reduced-price meals during the school year, summer is potentially a two-and-a-half-month stretch without stable, nutritious meals. 
Last May, 38 percent of students in Addison County qualified for subsidized school meals, and 42 percent throughout Vermont qualified.
The Summer Food Service Program (SFSP), a federal child nutrition program, is working to ease the pressure on low-income families during the summer to make up for the meals their children usually receive at school. The USDA, the Vermont Agency of Education, the Agency of Human Services and Hunger Free Vermont have teamed up to establish 18 sites for summer meals around Addison County this year.
Those sites include five venues in Bristol; four in Starksboro; one each in Leicester, Shoreham, Bridport and Middlebury; and five in Vergennes (see chart below for places and times).
Most sites offer breakfast and/or lunch every weekday for all children under the age of 18. All sites are drop-in; children don’t have to apply, register or provide any proof of income to enjoy a free meal.
“The great thing about this program is that once you qualify, any kid can just come to a site,” said Anore Horton, the Nutrition Initiatives Director at Hunger Free Vermont, a statewide education and advocacy organization working to end food insecurity in Vermont.
While most of the SFSP locations are schools, churches or parks and recreation sites, any nonprofit entity can qualify to offer a summer meal program if it is within the attendance area of a school where 50 percent or more students are eligible for free or reduced-price meals. Additionally, a site can qualify if it is within a census tract that has been defined as low-income.
In addition to summer meals, many of the sites offer activity programs. Two-thirds of the achievement gap between low-income students and their peers is attributable to the summer months and the lack of low-cost summer programs that keep students mentally engaged.
“What we’ve seen is that offering summer meals helps to bring kids to summer programs and vice versa,” Horton said. “Meals plus programming is your best combination for making sure that kids are getting both the enrichment they need to close the achievement gap that broadens over the summer, and the nutrition that they need to stay healthy and be able to grow their brains.”
While the USDA finances the summer food program — food and staff to prepare the meals — additional activity programs and any transportation require outside support. 
“Addison County is a great example of this,” Horton said. “It’s a rural county, transportation can be a real challenge and offering activities for kids so it’s not just meals, but also something for them to do. Those things cost additional money.”
Community fundraising and partnerships with other local organizations help make these programs possible and accessible to more children.
This summer, programs began to offer meals last Monday, June 20, and most will last through the first or second week of August. While it’s too early to determine the number of children who will benefit from the summer meal program this year, Horton is hopeful they will reach more than last year.
Last summer, during the month of July, average daily participation across the state was about 8,779 children. This is one-third of the children who participate in free or reduced-price meals in Vermont during the school year. 
“That’s only a third of the kids we know are at risk for hunger during the school year. Summer is the worst time for hunger for kids, obviously because they don’t have that regular source of nutrition from the school,” said Horton.
While Vermont has run the SFSP for over 20 years, efforts in the past five years to make summer meals more accessible have resulted in a steady increase in sites and child participation. However, limited access to transportation to sites prevents many children from benefiting from the summer meal programs.
“It’s very hard if parents work, it’s very hard for them to somehow get their kids to a free lunch site in the middle of the day,” Horton said. “They need a full-day program where their kids can go, be safe, be learning and get breakfast and lunch. We need to do a much better job in Vermont of making that available for low-income kids.”
USDA-set guidelines for the SFSP ensure that all children will receive a full, nutritious meal. Vermont is taking an extra step to connect local farms with the summer meal programs. Hunger Free Vermont, in partnership with the Vermont Farm to School Network, has been experimenting with a number of initiatives to bring local, fresh food to the summer meal sites.
“Summer is our growing season in Vermont. That’s when we have the most resources available, in the summer when school’s not even in session,” Horton said.
Editor’s note: To learn more about the Summer Food Service Program and find a drop-in meal site near you, call 2-1-1 toll free or text “FOOD” to 877-877.

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