Free summer lunches in jeopardy in some towns

MIDDLEBURY — Seven Addison County towns hosted free meals sites this past summer that delivered thousands of meals to hungry local kids, though human services providers are concerned some of those communities might soon have to cut off the food supply due to federal income eligibility standards.
Summer meals was but one of several food-related topics discussed by the Addison County Hunger Council on Tuesday. The council advocates for programming aimed at making sure area families have enough nutritious food to eat. Council members heard reports from a variety of advocates on their efforts to feed hungry kids and their families.
Several local lawmakers and candidates for office this November listened intently to the discussion.
Laura LaVacca is the leader of the food service cooperative for both the Addison Northwest and Mount Abraham union school districts. Those districts each participated in the federally funded summer meals program, lasting from June 21 to Aug. 10. The ANWSD and MAUSD cooperative served a combined total of 5,153 breakfasts and 14,919 lunches at multiple sites throughout the two districts, according to LaVacca. Those numbers are down slightly from last year, she noted.
Meals this summer were prepared in kitchens at Mount Abraham Union High School and Ferrisburgh Central School, thanks to the efforts of eight part-time staff and two Middlebury College volunteers who helped deliver meals to homebound children.
Operated under the United States Department of Agriculture, the free summer meals program serves children 18 years old and younger. Under USDA rules, an open (free) site can be located in a low-income area where at least 50 percent or more of all of the children are eligible for free or reduced-price school meals. The site is then free to all of the children in the community, regardless of household income level.
A family of four can’t earn more than $31,980 annually for their children to qualify for a free school lunch. That income threshold for reduced-price lunches is $45,510, according to the Vermont Agency of Education.
These lunches are often more nutritious and substantial than the food the child might otherwise receive at home, according to the USDA. There were free meal sites this past summer in Bristol, Bridport, Ferrisburgh, Leicester, Middlebury, Starksboro and Vergennes.
Once a community qualifies as an open meal site, it is assured of retaining that status for five years, according to federal guidelines. But it can lose eligibility if, at the end of that five years, less than 50 percent of its students qualify for free or reduced-price school lunches.
LaVacca is concerned some of Addison County’s free summer meal sites will be phased out during the next few years due to an increasing number of households that will narrowly miss qualifying for free and reduced-price lunches. She specifically cited Vergennes as being in particular danger on that score.
“Families are making slightly more money, so they’re just missing benefits — and there’s that cliff that happens,” LaVacca said. “It feels like we’re denying more and more applications on a narrow margin.”
And that phenomenon is not unique to Addison County. Communities throughout the state are in peril of losing their free summer meal sites, according to local human services advocates.
Approximately 44 percent of the state’s households currently qualify for free or reduced school lunches, officials said.
Still, the Addison Northwest/Mount Abe food cooperative was able to launch a couple of new, successful food programs this summer. Vergennes Union Elementary hosted the “Sunshine Grill,” serving 1,169 meals — including hot dogs and hamburgers — to Vergennes and Ferrisburgh kids and their families.
“It was a great community-building opportunity, where children and families got to eat together,” LaVacca said.
Cooperative employees and helpers, thanks to a support from the USDA, also conducted a door-to-door survey among clusters of homes in the service area asking residents if they’d consider being a summer meal site. The cooperative would deliver the food for service at the home.
“(The homeowner) would invite neighborhood kids,” LaVacca explained.
With no lead time, the survey yielded but one local “home meal site” this summer, which served an average of six meals a day. The home, in Vergennes, served 20 meals on one particular day, according to LaVacca.
“Hopefully we’re going to continue that in the future,” LaVacca said of cultivating residential meal sites to better accommodate kids who can’t make it to a central location.
Food and fun were plentiful for Vergennes-area children this summer, according to a report at Tuesday’s meeting. Jill Strube, executive director of the Boys & Girls Club of Greater Vergennes, reported that the club had moved into new digs at 20 Armory Lane. She noted the club is very close to the Armory Lane senior housing project. She invited summer meals organizers to make the club a stop when they deliver food to the senior housing.
The Boys & Girls Club continues to serve summer meals; it served around 4,000 lunches last year to children at its former School Street site.
The new club headquarters has a nice kitchen equipped with a six-burner stove, large fridge, dishwasher and freezer, among other appliances.
Strube and her staff will hold an open house at the club on Oct. 11, from 5:30-7 p.m.
“Come see the building; it’s amazing,” Strube said. “We’re super-excited to be there.”
Middlebury College students also contributed to hunger fighting efforts this summer through a non-profit organization launched in 2013.
Middlebury Foods is a student-run organization that orders food from national and local distributors and provides it at the same or lower prices (usually 20 to 50 percent cheaper) to people in need of sustenance. Middlebury Foods currently delivers fresh produce, meat, eggs, cheese and other staples to six sites throughout Addison County.
Middlebury Foods volunteer Nora Peachin was among five Middlebury College students who worked for the organization this summer. Along with making regular food deliveries, the workers did a price comparison to make sure Middlebury Foods products were still a bargain compared to area grocery stores.
The organization is also pursuing a potential partnership with the Counseling Service of Addison County, to see if Middlebury Foods could serve some of that agency’s patients and employees, according to Peachin.
At the same time, Middlebury Foods is now forming a new board of directors that would be made up of community members, former students and others devoted to the organization’s mission.
Reporter John Flowers is at [email protected].

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