As more than 50 local children enjoyed a free lunch at the Waterbury Recreation Department, Gov. Peter Shumlin and anti-hunger advocates applauded summer food programs, urged families whose children need nutritious meals in the summertime to participate, and reminded business and Vermonters of the opportunity to volunteer at meal sites.
"Summer should be a fun time for many kids and teens. But for those who count on subsidized school meals, it can be a stressful time because they don't have access to regular meals," Gov. Shumlin said. He said about 37,000 Vermont children rely on a free or reduced-price school lunch during the school year. While Vermont ranks 5th in the country for utilization of the Summer Food Service Program (SFSP) that allows children to access summertime meals free of charge, fewer than 7,000 children have access to those nutritious meals when schools are closed.
"There is still work to be done, and Hunger Free Vermont is relentless in our mission to ensure kids are fed wherever they are in their day," said Marissa Parisi, Executive Director of Hunger Free Vermont.
She said Hunger Free Vermont is encouraging families to participate in free lunch programs around the state. The organization has created a texting program -- text "mealsVT' 877-877' to locate the closest meal site -- to make it easier for parents to find locations. Because these programs are funded largely with federal matching funds, increased participation translates into increased federal funds to support the program.
Many summer meal sites also provide kids and teens with summer enrichment programs, which means that children are not only well-fed, but are in a safe, supervised environment and engaged in educational and recreational activities that can help them remain physically active and start school ready to learn. The Governor and Parisi said business groups and individual Vermonters can volunteer time helping out with enrichment projects at free meal sites to encourage children to attend.
The Waterbury Recreation Department is a model example of summer programming that is filling a crucial gap for Vermont students by offering both meals and enrichment activities. The Summer Food Program lunch is served daily from 11:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m., feeding children including the approximately 50 Day Camp participants. The Food Program today hosted "Come for free lunch, take home a garden" activity, with children decorating used milk cartons (the empties from the lunch program) before planting seeds within. The soil utilized was from the compost farm, Grow Compost, that uses the Program's breakfast and lunch food scraps.
In the fight against childhood hunger, Vermont was the first state -- now joined by Minnesota -- to offer free school meals to all low-income students.
The Governor noted that summer meals programs are especially important as families recover from the recession, with low-income families needing safe, supervised and affordable places for kids and teens to socialize, play and continue to learn during the summer. In addition, kids at risk for obesity are more likely to gain weight during the summer because they lose access to balanced school meals. Summer meals offer a continuation of healthy meals.
And summer break forces families to stretch their tight food budgets to cover additional meals for children at home. Summer meals help relieve this strain on budgets so families can still afford healthier choices at the market.
John Sayles, CEO of the Vermont Foodbank, said that the demand for food rises significantly over the summer months when many parents scramble to keep meals on the table for their children when school is out.
"It's our job as anti-hunger advocates to see to it that more Vermont kids are getting the important nutrition they need all year round," said Sayles. "Whether it's at a Summer Food Service site or a food shelf or meal site in their community, the Foodbank is working to ensure that summer is a time when kids continue to learn, grow, play and eat well."
The Foodbank serves as many as 86,000 Vermonters annually through a network of 270 food shelves, meal sites, shelters, senior centers and youth programs. About 34 percent of the people served by the Foodbank are children under the age of 18--many of whom are going without food during summer months. This is why the Summer Food Service Program and other out-of-school time nutrition programs are so important to the Vermont Foodbank, Sayles said.
Last year the Foodbank distributed 8.2 million pounds of food to 1 in 7 Vermonters struggling with hunger.
Gov. Shumlin signed a proclamation declaring Saturday, August 9, as Ride Against Hunger Day for the Vermont Foodbank's annual Harpoon Point to Point Presented by National Life Group charity bike ride. This is the Foodbank's largest annual fundraiser -- having raised over $717,000 since its inception in 2002, and Sayles said the organization hopes to raise a record $150,000 this year, with more than 800 riders this year.