Editor’s note: This is the third in a series of stories that look at how the numbers of local families accessing food assistance programs have changed in the past decade.
ADDISON COUNTY — As the old proverb goes, “There’s no such thing as a free lunch.”
But if the Addison Northeast Supervisory Union’s (ANeSU) Food Service Cooperative and the Mary Johnson Children’s Center have a say, that proverb may soon be outdated. This summer, the two organizations will work together — and independently — to offer free lunches to all kids participating in certain Bristol, Middlebury, Vergennes, Starksboro and New Haven summer programs.
Children enrolled in summer camps through the Bristol Recreation Department will receive free lunches, said Kathy Alexander, director of the ANeSU Food Co-op. She hopes also to provide the same service to kids enrolled in summer school at Mount Abraham Union High School, the summer reading program at the Bixby Memorial Library in Vergennes and in summer programs at the Boys and Girls Club of Greater Vergennes.
In the past, Bristol summer camps haven’t offered any meals, let alone free ones. So when Alexander approached Darla Senecal, director of the Bristol Recreation Department, about the idea, Senecal was thrilled.
“Every kid that comes to Bristol summer camps, we’ll find a way to get him or her a free lunch,” she said. “I’m really excited about this program. To be able to bring good, local, healthy food to kids is important. We know there are kids in the area that go without food in the summer, and partnering with the ANeSU Food Co-op is something we’re proud to do.”
Middlebury-based Mary Johnson is no stranger to free meals. For the past four years, the children’s center has offered free meals to students participating in all of its summer programs. Anne Gleason, who runs the after-school and summer programs for Mary Johnson, said this summer the programs will feed more than 450 kids across the county.
Mary Johnson will provide meals to Middlebury programs like MiddSummer at Mary Hogan Elementary School, the Middlebury School Age program at Mary Hogan, and summer school at Middlebury Union Middle and High schools. The children’s center will also team up with the ANeSU Food Co-op to offer meals at the Bristol After School Kids’ summer program at Bristol Elementary School, the New Haven and Starksboro School Age Summer Programs at Beeman and Robinson elementary schools (in New Haven and Starksboro, respectively), and the Vergennes Summer Program at Vergennes Union Elementary School.
Mary Johnson and Bristol Recreation programs do charge tuition, but state and other funding is available for families who need assistance, noted Gleason and Senecal.
When summer rolls around, students from low-income families who rely on the free and reduced-price school meal program — part of the USDA’s National Lunch Program — can be left with few places to turn.
“There are kids in Addison County who go to bed hungry and they get up hungry,” said Gleason. “There are kids here that need free meals. I truly believe there are some very vulnerable children in Addison County and it’s our responsibility (as a community) to support them.”
Lorraine Thompson, who runs the Bristol Elementary cafeteria, said that every fall when students return to school, she can tell who hasn’t been eating enough.
“When school starts up again, I have students say, ‘Oh, real food,’” she said. “They can’t wait to eat.”
Like others school food administrators, Alexander said this problem is most severe in areas with high concentrations of low-income families — a situation that’s revealed itself in Addison County throughout the last decade.
That’s where the USDA School Food Service Program is supposed to come in.
The number of students participating in the free and reduced-price school meal program has risen drastically in the past decade, more than doubling in some county schools.
In 2004, no Addison County school had more than 50 percent of its student body enrolled in the low-income meal program. Today, more than 50 percent of the students are enrolled in the program at schools like Bristol Elementary, Bridport Central, Robinson Elementary, Salisbury Community and Shoreham Elementary. Additionally, more than 50 percent of the kids in the Vergennes census block on the west side of Main Street qualify for this program.
As a result, the ANeSU Food Co-op is eligible for higher meal reimbursement rates in these areas through the USDA School Food Service Program, which in turn makes it financially feasible for the co-op to offer free lunches. The co-op receives $3.38 from the USDA for every lunch it serves in those school districts and census blocks where more than 50 percent of the students participate in the free and reduce-priced lunch program. During the school year, ANeSU schools lose money on each lunch they make — the cost outweighs the reimbursement and paid meal rates. But in the summer, this higher reimbursement rate for all lunches makes the free meal program financially manageable for the co-op.
“Over the summer, with summer meals, we don’t lose money,” said Alexander.
PAYING FOR MEALS
But Mary Johnson usually does, said Barbara Saunders, co-director of the children’s center. Mary Johnson participates in the USDA’s Child and Adult Care Food Program (CACFP), which offers a lower reimbursement rate of $2.77 for lunches served by day care centers.
Laurie Colgan, director of child nutrition for the Vermont Department of Education, explained that due to the way the government is organized, the ANeSU Food Co-op cannot receive the $3.38 that it normally would when it’s serving lunches through Mary Johnson. The children’s center gets the CACFP reimbursement and then contracts out to the co-op.
Since Mary Johnson does offer programs in Bristol and Starksboro, where more than 50 percent of the students are on the low-income meal program, Colgan said the center might be eligible for the higher reimbursement rates in those areas. But, she added, she’s not sure the program will be able to meet all of the criteria.
Regardless, Gleason said Mary Johnson will still offer free meals at all of its programs, and the staff will find ways to make up the difference in cost. She believes that by doing this, Mary Johnson is helping to meet the needs of the community.
“When you’re looking at providing safe and secure places for the children of our community, we have to meet the basic needs of life,” she said.
Reporter Andrew Stein is at [email protected]