Thursday, December 12, 2013
By Gillian Graham email@example.com
WINDHAM - Laura Smith knows how hard it can be to stretch a fixed budget during the summer.
Mason Stoddard, 11, and Nickolas Keene, 3, picnic outside Little Falls Landing senior housing in Windham on Friday. This is the first summer that free lunches have been provided every weekday at the Windham site for children age 18 and under.
Photos by Carl D. Walsh/Staff Photographer
Matthew Keene, 6, of Windham chooses an apple at the free lunch at Little Falls Landing on Friday.
HUNGRY CHILDREN IN MAINE, BY THE NUMBERS
• Students eligible for free lunch: 11,100 (28 percent)
• Students eligible for reduced-price lunch: 1,754 (4 percent)
• Students eligible for free lunch: 71,989 (38 percent)
• Students eligible for reduced-price lunch: 12,742 (7 percent)
Source: Maine Department of Education
• Children younger than 18 living in poverty: 48,733 (18 percent)
• Children younger than 5 living in poverty: 15,752 (23 percent)
• Children receiving Food Supplement Program benefits: 75,889 (28 percent)
• Children eligible for free and reduced-price lunch: 84,731 (45 percent)
• Maine has the sixth-highest rate of hunger in the United States and the highest rate of hunger in New England.
• Nearly 200,000 Mainers are unable to afford consistent and adequate nutrition.
Source: Maine Hunger Initiative
During the school year, two of her three children get free lunch at school. In the summer, it's up to her to put those meals on the table.
But for the first time, Smith can take her children to Little Falls Landing for a free lunch each weekday. It's one of a growing number of summertime free-lunch programs in Maine that are trying to reach the nearly 85,000 children who are eligible for free or reduced-price meals during the school year.
There are now 242 summer meal sites in Maine, up from 224 last summer, according to the Maine Department of Education.
During the school year, 100 percent of the 85,000 children get fed. In the summer, when school is out, that drops to 16 percent, illustrating the need for additional sites, said Gail Lombardi, the Department of Education's program manager for Child Nutrition Services.
State Sen. Justin Alfond, D-Portland, who sponsored legislation that provides guidance to schools for setting up summer meal programs, said, "Students are hungry all year, not just during the school calendar. We must do everything we can to end food insecurity in our communities."
Alfond said he sponsored the legislation because it was clear that eligible schools weren't taking advantage of available federal funding, which provides $3.25 reimbursement for every meal served.
A study last year by the Maine Center for Economic Policy showed that while the state received $1.1 million in federal funds through the Summer Food Service Program, another $10 million would have been available if additional meal sites had been operating.
"While we've had some success in expanding the number of sites, the sad reality is that we also have more kids who are hungry now than a year ago," said Garrett Martin, executive director of the Maine Center for Economic Policy. "It's pretty clear there's more that can be done."
Cumberland County has 58 summer meal sites, 40 of which operate where at least half of the students qualify for free or reduced-price meals. They are open to any child 18 or younger, regardless of need.
The Maine Hunger Initiative supports 24 of those sites, including 12 new sites, said Michelle Lamm, program manager for the Maine Hunger Initiative. Those new programs are primarily in the Lakes Region, where the rural nature of the towns can prevent children from getting to the sites easily.
To address that problem in Windham, the Maine Hunger Initiative worked with Saint Joseph's College's Bon Appetit meal service and Avesta to serve lunch on the lawn outside of the Little Falls Landing senior housing. Most of the approximately 15 kids who showed up each day this week walked from the neighborhood across the street.
A group of children sprinted across the lawn at exactly noon Friday, eager to grab bag lunches from the residents who volunteer to serve meals and play games. As the children spread out on blankets on the lawn to eat turkey sandwiches, their parents socialized nearby.
Laura Smith came with her children and several others from the neighborhood who needed an adult to walk with them.
"There's a lot of people in my neighborhood who can't afford a balanced lunch," Smith said. "It's awesome to know this is at least one balanced meal they can have."
Lamm said the program in Windham is unique because of its connection to a senior housing complex.
Windham schools didn't qualify for a summer meal site because fewer than 50 percent of their students qualify for free lunch. But Lamm said program organizers recognized there were children in town who could benefit from free meals. The area around Little Falls Landing was chosen because of its concentration of low-income housing and residents.
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click image to enlarge
Eden Slater, a Maine Hunger Initiative supervisor, plays with children as part of the lunch program in Windham. Organizers want to attract older kids to the program, too.