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Free summer food options in decline

SCOTT BOURNE SERVES kids free summer lunches outside Middlebury’s Memorial Sports Center in 2021.
Independent photo/Megan James

ADDISON COUNTY — Changes in demographics, recent bumps in household income, low staffing and other factors will reduce the number of places hungry kids will be able to get free meals this summer.

That was the takeaway from a Tuesday gathering of the Addison County Hunger Council, a group of local human services providers who regularly join forces to tackle food security problems in our area. Tuesday’s meeting featured an early look at “free meals” landscape for school-age children whose access to nourishing meals typically declines once classes adjourn for the long summer break.

“Summer Meals for Kids & Teens” is a federal program that offers free food to children aged 18 and younger. These meals are sometimes combined with existing municipal recreation programming and offer a chance for the children to stay connected with their peers. The meals — which can be hot or cold and must follow USDA guidelines — typically include a grain, milk, protein, fruits and veggies.

In order to qualify for hosting a free summer meals site, a community must have 50% of its students eligible for free or reduced-price school meals. And once a particular school or census tract is certified for the free meals site, it remains eligible for five years — even if it slips under the 50% threshold during that period.

It should be noted that the federal government relaxed its free summer meals rules significantly during the COVID-19 pandemic, essentially ensuring that any hungry child had convenient access to food. Moreover, the fed allowed families to pick up their meals for takeout, as a means of preventing the spread of the virus. Rules have traditionally called for kids to consume their free meals at open sites.

But the COVID-related funding is running out, with rules reverting to pre-pandemic standards.

Council members got some sobering news from two key players in Addison County’s free summer meals programming: Kathy Alexander, food service director for the Mount Abraham and Addison Northwest unified school districts; and Steve Marinelli, who holds the same position in the Addison Central School District.

The bottom line, according to Alexander and Marinelli:

• There will be no Summer Meals for Kids & Teens program in Addison Northwest — which includes Vergennes and Ferrisburgh.

Vergennes lost its federal funding for summer meals last year, noted Alicia Grangent, CEO of the Boys & Girls Club of Greater Vergennes. Knowing that many Vergennes-area kids still needed free food, the club boosted its fundraising to ensure kids involved in its summer programming would continue to get fed.

Last year, around 30 children per day got meals through the Boys & Girls Club.

But this year, the club only has around 10 slots for its summer program — which won’t be held at the Vergennes Armory. The club has a van to take participants off-site throughout the summer, so there won’t be an opportunity to give food to drop-ins, according to Boys & Girls Club officials.

Another likely 2023 food casualty in Vergennes will be the free summer meal kits that were distributed out of the Bixby Memorial Library. Each meal kit contained enough food for seven days of breakfasts and lunches for the recipient. So once per week, area families who signed up could pick up a meal kits for each kid.

“The library was amazing; they were great to work with,” Alexander said. “But pickup was challenging, and getting our product there. There’s just not a lot of space. We don’t have anywhere in Vergennes where we have staff and kitchens to put together the meal kits this year.”

Grangent lamented the loss this year of a Bixby’s food program.

“It’s too bad, because I know those food boxes (coming from the Bixby) had quite a bit of stuff in them,” she said.

On the brighter side, children enrolled in the Fusion summer program at Vergennes Union Elementary will have access to meals. But it’s for enrollees, not drop-ins, Alexander noted.

• Bristol will run two meal sites — one at Bristol Elementary School and the other at The Hub teen center for its summer programming. But they will be “closed, enrolled” sites, Alexander noted, “where every child enrolled in the program gets two meals (breakfast and lunch) for free. This is distinct from an “open” site, where enrolled children can get meals and where any child 18 and younger can drop in and partake.

Alexander on Tuesday hadn’t given up hope that one of the two Bristol sites could be designated “open.” She said the state’s final list of confirmed open/closed meal sites was still more than a week away.

But even if Bristol is greenlighted for an open site, there’s no guarantee that organizers will be able to pull it off.

“As you might imagine, being able to do an open site requires another level of staffing and a willingness of the site staff (to collaborate),” Alexander said. “We haven’t gotten that yet.”

• The Starksboro Cooperative Preschool will host a free summer meals program for its students and nearby Camp Common Ground (when it’s in session). Also, the Starksboro site will assemble takeout “meal kits” for qualifying children. 

“It will likely be a Friday,” Alexander said of the pickup day. “We will have a few extra (meals), but we’re going to really encourage people to sign up.”

Organizers hope a rigorous sign-up program will cut down on waste. A combined weekly 300 meal kits were prepared for MAUSD and ANWSD children last year, according to Alexander.

“But at every site, we had chronic leftovers,” she said. “It’s a lot of food, and people didn’t show up. We’re going to try to avoid that.”

• Middlebury will run two sites that will distribute to-go meals — one at Mary Hogan Elementary School, the other at Middlebury Union Middle School. Local families will be able to pull up to either school, receive their children’s to-go meals, and drive off.

Also, the Middlebury Recreation Department will offer free meals as an open site, focusing on children enrolled in its summer programming, according to Marinelli. 

“We also have a van available, so if there are other sites that might need some distribution, we would be open to that,” he said.

The two Middlebury sites will run from open June 19 through Aug. 18.

• Salisbury will host a summer meals site during a month of children’s programming in that community. More details to come.

LOOKING AHEAD

Sadly, news could get even bleaker on the summer-meals front during the next few years, according to Alexander.

She said several Addison County towns — including the population hubs of Bristol and Middlebury — are getting close to no longer qualifying under the federal program rules. Some of that is due to household incomes rising in a post-COVID economy where businesses are competing for workers. But the fact remains that two parents in a Vermont household where each is making the state’s minimum wage ($13.18 per hour) could soon become ineligible for subsidized meals based on evolving federal poverty guidelines, Hunger Council officials said.

Marinelli said Middlebury is in the third year of its five-year authorization for federal funding for summer meals.

The perennial summer meals-eligible towns of Bridport and Shoreham now no longer meet the program criteria, according to Alexander.

“I’m sorry to be the bearer of bad news, but we are in a transition period,” Alexander said.

Catherine Caum, grants manager at the non-profit Hunger Free Vermont, said towns may have to approach hunger differently, going forward.

“I think we’re looking at needing to start thinking about, as community members, how we’re going to address summer hunger in our communities in a different way,” she said.

Reporter John Flowers is at [email protected].

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