Program ensures kids get free summer meals

MIDDLEBURY — The start of summer vacation fills kids with the joy of freedom, but it can also instill hunger pangs in children who depend on subsidized school breakfasts and lunches during the academic year.
Fortunately, low-income families in several Addison County communities can lean on a federal program that is serving up free breakfasts and/or lunches to anyone aged 18 or younger throughout the summer. There are a combined total of 20 drop-in meals sites in seven Addison County communities that are providing what advocates contend is a critical bridge to late August when children will return to their usual source of educational and nutritional sustenance.
“It’s absolutely imperative,” Anne Gleason said of the free summer meals program. Gleason is School Age Assistant at Mary Johnson Children’s Center (MJCC). 
“If (the program) wasn’t happening, we’d have to be working a lot harder to make it happen.”
Operated under the United States Department of Agriculture, the free summer meals program serves children 18 years old and younger. Under USDA rules, a 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.
According to information provided by the non-profit organization Hunger Free Vermont, Vergennes is home this summer to six free meal sites, Bristol has five, Starksboro has three, Middlebury has three, and there are one each in Leicester, Bridport and Shoreham.
A full list of the county’s site locations and their hours of operation can be found with this story online at addisonindependent.com.
Locations tend to reflect typical summer gathering spots for children, including libraries, public parks and pools, churches, camps and schools. 
Some of the locations offer just breakfast, some offer just lunch, and several offer both meals.
Middlebury’s three sites — at the town’s recreation park, Middlebury Union High School and at the Counseling Service of Addison County’s property at 89 Main St. — have been up and running since June 24, according to Gleason. They’ve been attracting a combined total of around 250 children per day, a number that will likely swell later this month with the launch of local summer camps.
An estimated 7,800 Vermont children consume free summer meals at sites throughout the state, according to Becca Mitchell, manager of child nutrition initiatives for Hunger Free Vermont. It’s a number she believes would be even higher if many low-income families didn’t face transportation hurdles getting their kids to the specific dining sites. As previously reported by the Independent, the Middlebury-based organization Helping Overcome Poverty’s Effects, or HOPE, is exploring ways to get food to hungry, homebound children.
Advocates like Mitchell and Gleason said the free summer meals take a lot of financial pressure off low-income families whose budgets don’t have the flexibility to pick up two months of their kids’ meals.
“When I tell (parents) the food is available at no charge, a lot of the time there’s this audible sigh,” Gleason said of the sense of relief she hears from her clients.
And access to free food — regardless of income level — is a “great equalizer” for children from different economic households, according to Gleason.
“It builds a sense of normalcy,” she said.
SARAH ANDERSON, THE manager of summer food services for the program at Mount Abraham Union High School, heaves a tray of sandwiches to the lunch line for distribution to kids on Monday. 
Independent photo/Steve James
Summer meal menus follow USDA nutrition guidelines and can be served hot or cold. Breakfast typically includes a fruit or vegetable, dairy and a grain or bread item. Recent Middlebury lunches have featured pizza, chicken tenders, cheese sticks and fresh fruit.
A crew of five people prepares the food for the Middlebury sites, with additional support from Middlebury Parks & Recreation and other organizations.
Gleason has seen the summer meals program evolve during her 30 years with MJCC. She recalls the days when child care advocates worked with HOPE — then known as Addison County Community Action Group — to make sandwiches for kids. The USDA meals sites have gained a lot of momentum during the past 12 years, she said.
“It’s in a new league,” she said, “and I hope it’s not going to go backwards.”
Reporter John Flowers is at [email protected].

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