Despite the old adage, there’s nothing wrong with free lunches. In fact, rather than denying their existence, we should learn value them.

Those who might not believe they exist haven’t heard of the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Summer Food Service Program, which provides millions of children with free meals each day, and many of them are served at sites in Maine, including in Biddeford, Scarborough, South Portland and Westbrook.

Although the program has been around since the 1970s, many people are still unaware of it, and many families are not taking advantage of the meals being offered. Started in 1968 as a pilot program, it’s aimed at getting nutritious meals to kids in the summer months when they’re not attending school.

While the program is targeted to low-income children, there are no income requirements to be eligible for the meals. All children need to do is get to one of the sites where meals are being served.

Locally, meals are available at the Canal School in Westbrook from 11:45 a.m.-12:45 p.m. through Aug. 21, the South Portland Boys and Girls Club on Broadway from noon-1 p.m. through Aug. 28 and at the Wentworth Intermediate School in Scarborough from 8-8:30 a.m. and 11:30 a.m.-12:30 p.m. through Aug. 21. Westbrook is even offering children bus rides to the meal sites.

Some might argue that these are not, in fact, free lunches; the federal government (i.e. all of us) is paying for them. While that’s true, the benefit of this program far outweighs the cost. The program cost the federal government $357.9 million in fiscal year 2009, but an estimated 2 million children participated. That’s about $175 per child. Anyone raising kids knows that’s a bargain.

The cost of not feeding kids is even greater. Studies show children with proper nutrition perform better in school, and malnutrition can lead to health problems that are far more expensive when treated by doctors.

The problem is that many children are still not taking advantage of the program, either because they are unaware of it, their parents are worried about the stigma associated with accepting free lunches or the meals are unavailable in their area. That’s why it’s important to spread the word about the program and stress that there is nothing wrong with accepting a free lunch. The value of a free meal is something we can all appreciate amid this recent recession, which has left few people who have not felt some kind of financial pinch.

The program could also expand to new sites reaching more kids, particularly in rural areas of Maine. The federal government, however, relies on local schools and nonprofit organizations to take the initiative to set up the programs. For information on starting a program in your town, go to www.fns.usda.gov/cnd/Summer/Default.htm, and for a list of meal sites in Maine, go to www.maine.gov/education/sfs/sfsp.htm.

Brendan Moran, editor


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