Summer Food Programs On Rise

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(Host) In Vermont, 29 thousand children meet the income guidelines for subsidized breakfast and lunch during the school year. For some, the meals are the only reliable source of daily nutrition.

But the state’s summer meal programs reach only about 5,000 kids – a small fraction of those who qualify.

Advocates would like to improve on those numbers, as VPR’s Susan Keese reports.

(Keese) It’s lunchtime at Agape church on Canal Street in Brattleboro.

Little kids, teens, even a teenage mother with her baby, sit at tables in a big room the church has donated for this neighborhood summer program. An animated movie plays on a TV on a high corner shelf.

(Longueil) "Scottie, get the cooler. Let me get my body going here."

The food service wheels in lunch. Today it’s hot dogs, chips and sliced local cucumbers. A couple of young volunteers serve.

(Girl) "Guys come up, grab your plates."

(Keese) Peggy Longueil is in charge here. She sits up front in a wheelchair – a temporary setback from knee surgery, she insists.

The 68- year old great-grandmother and foster mom is president of the Clark-Canal Association. The neighborhood group has run this program for 14 years. Longueil says it’s mainly grandparents.

(Longueil) "I wish we could get some of the younger crowd to come in help us, but right now it’s just us, seven or eight of us that keep this running."

(Keese) The U.S. Department of Agriculture pays for the meals during an eight-week period in the summer. During that time, Longueil is here Monday through Friday.

Usually there’s an activity in the afternoon – music or crafts with local artists, a visit to a farm or petting zoo. Today it’s a trip to the town pool.

Longueil doesn’t get paid. But she says the kids have to eat.

(Longueil) "And when school’s out, who’s going to feed them? I’ve seen a lot of sad cases, let’s put it that way, where kids are not getting fed the nutrition that they should be fed and it’s sad."

(Keese) Agape Church is one of 14 summer meal sites in Brattleboro and 156 throughout the state.

Michelle Carr is with the Brattleboro Housing Authority, which administers the Brattleboro sites. She says there’s a need for more, just in her town.

Carr says the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which provides the food, would pay for more summer meals. But someone has to host the program.

(Carr) "It means that they would have to find two volunteers that will go there to serve breakfast and lunch and clean up. So it is a big commitment."

(Keese) Emily Glover is with the Vermont Campaign to End Childhood Hunger. She says nationwide, budget cuts to summer programs that include subsidize meals may be one reason participation has gone down, even though hunger is rising.

Glover says participation has increased in Vermont.

(Glover) But as you said, we’re only reaching about one in five kids who qualify for a free summer meal.

(Keese) Glover says transportation – getting kids to meals and meals to kids — is a big hurdle in a rural state.

State officials say another hurdle may be lack of awareness that children in Vermont do go hungry in the summer time.

They say that poor nutrition impacts learning, health and the ability to handle challenges – things that are in everyone’s best interest to think about.

For VPR News, I’m Susan Keese.

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