PORTLAND – The spaghetti was tasty and the atmosphere was welcoming Wednesday evening in the cafeteria at Lincoln Middle School, the site of a new, free summer dinner program that’s geared toward families.

For Vicki McMahan, a mother of two who has a mental health disability, it’s one more way to stretch her food budget.

“We’re low-income, so it really helps out,” she said. “It gets harder to make ends meet by the end of the month.”

Sponsored by Portland schools and Wayside, the dinner program targets middle school students who qualify for free or reduced-price breakfasts and lunches during the school year.

Portland school officials and social service agencies are focusing on children in that age group, who traditionally haven’t taken part in free summer breakfast and lunch programs offered in the city.

“We wanted to go where they would feel comfortable because we know they’re not getting fed,” said Ron Adams, food service director for Portland public schools. “If they are getting fed, it’s not necessarily nutritious food.”

The dinner program will operate from 5 to 6 p.m. Monday through Thursday until Aug. 19. The program is open to anyone younger than 19 and the adults who accompany them. Residents of Portland and surrounding communities are welcome.

More than half of Portland’s school-age children qualify for free or reduced-price meals during the school year, which means they are at risk of going hungry during the summer, Adams said. That statistic applies to Lincoln Middle School, in the residential Deering Center neighborhood.

Across Cumberland County, 12,500 school-age children qualify for free or reduced-price meals, but only 1,700 free lunches were served each weekday last summer, Adams said. Free breakfasts and lunches are served at several schools and community centers across Portland each summer.

Susan Violet, executive director of Wayside, said her agency has increased efforts to serve families, especially because the economy continues to struggle and so many parents are out of work.

“We’re trying to blur the lines between what’s traditionally seen as charity and what’s now seen as necessary and good for the community,” Violet said.

The dinner program is funded by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which pays $3.50 for each meal served. The school district is providing two paid employees, and Wayside is providing one paid employee, along with several volunteers.

Representatives of Cumberland County 4-H and the University of Maine Cooperative Extension will provide nutrition information and children’s activities each Monday and Wednesday, respectively. On June 23, the Portland Altrusa Club will distribute 100 children’s books during the dinner program.

The turnout has been low since the dinner program started on Monday, although Adams said he’s confident that interest will grow as word spreads and families settle into summer routines. The school district advertised the program on school menus and through automated phone messages to all students’ homes.

“I’d like to see 200 kids and their families each night,” Adams said.

The program served four families on Wednesday. They included James Pike, an Anthem employee, and his wife, Carol, a homemaker, with their two sons, Sam, 14, and Will, 9. They said they live in the neighborhood and came for dinner because it was convenient, and to show support for the program.

Roger Hinchliffe, a Spanish teacher and census worker, was there with his 10-year-old son, Dana. “My wife and daughter are away, so it was a good opportunity to come down and check it out and not have to cook,” Hinchliffe said.

Vicki McMahan was there with her 8-year-old daughter, Cheyennee, who enjoyed her spaghetti and fruit cocktail and decided to take her salad home to her 16-year-old brother.

McMahan, who is a peer support worker for Catholic Charities Maine, said she receives Social Security disability benefits and food stamps. She pinches pennies to provide food for her family each month, but sometimes there’s not enough.

She said the dinner at Lincoln Middle School was delicious and bountiful, especially the salad bar.

“Normally, we wouldn’t be able to have fruit and salad in the same meal,” McMahan said. “I couldn’t afford it.”

 

Staff Writer Kelley Bouchard can be contacted at 791-6328 or at:

kbouchard@pressherald.com