An utterance that brings joy to many schoolchildren who relish a reprieve from homework and pop quizzes.
Summer also brings camps, workshops, and educational activities. One such offering is particularly sweet: The United Way of Windham County, in partnership with Hunger Free Vermont, kicked off summer meals programming with a picnic on the lawn of Green Street School in Brattleboro on June 21.
Summer Food Program Coordinator Kira Sawyer-Hartigan, MSW, estimated that 25 kids enjoyed their first free summer meal at the picnic. Fifty to 60 people attended the kick-off event, she estimated.
Cafe Services, the company that provides cafeteria meals during the school year, will prepare food for kids over the summer as well.
“It was a perfect summer day,” Sawyer-Hartigan said.
Staff from program sites Brooks Memorial Library and the Boys & Girls Club of Brattleboro provided science-related activities.
This is Brooks Memorial Library’s first summer as a meal site, said Sawyer-Hartigan. The library will provide lunch once a week and conduct activities related to food and science.
The summer meals programs is funded through the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA).
Meal sites in Windham County — many are combined with other programs or activities — will offer lunches to all area youth aged 18 and younger, as well as adults with disabilities participating in summer education programs. Any Vermont youth can eat at the 18 meal sites.
Open meals sites means children don’t need to register or fill out paperwork: they simply show up and eat. For free.
Free meals provided through the summer can mean the difference between malnutrition and health for some area youth.
For children living in households struggling with hunger, summer is less about carefree days and more about anxiety.
The community needs to know how vital this program is in feeding kids, said Sawyer-Hartigan.
Data from the Montpelier-based nonprofit organization Hunger Free Vermont notes that 14 Windham County towns out of 23 qualify for summer meals programs.
Summer meals programs served more than 43,000 meals in the county last year, up 1,531 from 2012. More than half of last summer’s meals were served in the more rural parts of the county, with just over 17,000 meals served in Brattleboro.
While some of those meals were served at summer camps, the Hunger Free Vermont data still points to many local children requiring help with meals in the warmer months.
According to Sawyer-Hartigan, about 63 percent of students attending the Brattleboro Town Schools qualify for free or reduced-price meals during the school year. That 63 percent could feel hunger’s pinch over the summer.
According to Carmen Derby, executive director of United Way of Windham County, open meal sites benefit an entire community by helping to eliminate stigma and providing youth with time to interact.
Derby said, “Making sure that all the kids in our community are fed is better achieved when kids come and share a meal with their friends of all socio-economic backgrounds, just as they are learning side by side in school.”
“Imagine being at the local pool and the announcement being made that, ‘If you qualify for a free meal, please come and get it now,’ versus the pool stopping the swimming activities and the meals are distributed to all attending and they get to share a meal as a community,” she said.
“One of the biggest barriers in eliminating hunger is the stigma involved with being poor,” continued Derby. “The open sites treat everyone equally and eliminates the ‘us and them.’”
Derby added that any youth aged 18 and under can attend open meal sites in Vermont or state participating in the USDA program.
“If your child is spending time with their grandparents or traveling throughout the summer, they can check to see where the nearest open site is located,” she said.
This year, Jamaica and Guilford will host summer meals programs for the first time.
The Guilford site is piloting providing transportation to and from the lunch. County organizers said lack of transportation can interfere with attending the program for many kids in rural areas.
Guilford Central School identified 60 students — a lot for the small school, officials said — likely to experience hunger over the summer months, said Derby.
Derby said that the new Guilford summer lunch program came together because the school board and community members pushed for it.
Solving transportation issues was paramount in ensuring that children got to and from the site.
The town of Guilford covers a lot of territory, said Derby. No one location was in easy walking distance. “Transportation has got to be part of the program there,” she explained.
Sawyer-Hartigan said that she has submitted a request for funding from a local trust to pay for busing to and from the Guilford meals site.
Right now, the Guilford program will provide meals only with a few volunteers developing activities, said Sawyer-Hartigan.
Similar to the school free or reduced-price lunch programs, some federal summer meals programs require prior enrollment or that children meet income thresholds. Open sites, however, feed all kids who show up.
Summer meal sites can offer universal meals if the site falls in an area that meets one of two criteria.
Anore Horton, child nutrition advocacy manager with Hunger Free Vermont, said that the first threshold is if the meals site is located in a school attendance area where half the students qualify for free and reduced-price lunches.
A site also may qualify if it’s located in a census tract the federal government defines as low-income.
Windham County’s school supervisory unions, like most in the state, have areas that qualify for open meal sites under USDA regulations.
To Horton’s knowledge, most of the Windham County open sites sit in attendance areas of schools where the 50 percent or more of the students qualify for federal lunch programs.
According to Horton, one in five Windham County children lives in a food-insecure household.
Summer is an economic challenge for many low-income families, said Horton. During the school year, children can eat lunch, and sometimes breakfast, at school. This stretches families’ food budgets.
During the summer, however, a tight food budget must provide for three meals a day, seven days a week, said Horton. The already-stretched budget may wear paper-thin.
Horton said food security and hunger are on a spectrum. At the top of the spectrum, called food-secure, a household knows if can provide ample food.
Next is food-insecure, she said. Here a household may have enough food but the adults worry constantly and juggle expenses. This stress molds family dynamics. Sometimes the family reduces the quality of the food to stretch its budget. Malnutrition may affect family members if meal quality and variety drops.
When a family reaches the level of hunger, said Horton, the adults go without meals so their kids can eat.
Severe hunger means everyone lacks enough to eat, she said.
Benefits for all
According to Horton, 13 percent of households in Vermont are food-insecure. About 27,000 kids, or roughly every one in five children, live in food-insecure households.
Horton said as the summer hunger increases, studies have shown that so does children’s weight gain.
That’s because parents resort to purchasing less-expensive, higher-calorie, and least nutritious food, she said.
Horton added she has held many conversations with school boards and principals and parents who look at the children’s summer weight gain and say, Why do they need a food program? They should be eating less.
Obesity can mask malnutrition and hunger, said Horton.
The more-balanced and nutrient-dense meals provided during meals programs, however, can protect against weight gain, Horton said.
“It’s important to understand that part of the puzzle,” she explained.
Meal site programs can include a range of activities including physical, educational, or arts and crafts, said Horton.
Educational activities play an important role in reducing the amount of skills or knowledge children lose during the summer months, said Horton.
Vermont faces an economic-based achievement gap, she said. Children from low income families often fall behind their more financially secure peers in school.
Horton describes estimates she’s read pointing toward low-income students over the summer losing approximately two months’ worth of the math skills they learned during the school year. These students can lose about two-and-a-half-months’ worth of reading skills.
Part of the issue is that low income families can’t afford camps, workshops, or other summer activities aimed at helping students retain or add to their knowledge.
While Horton did not have information on how many Windham County children may experience severe hunger, she said the Hunger Council members report seeing an increased need for food and services.
“More families are struggling,” she said.
For most households, food is one of the first budget items to take a hit, said Horton.
“Food is the one flexible item in a low-income family’s budget,” she said.
People can’t negotiate their rent or heating bill but they can buy less food, Horton continued. “So when the heating bill goes up, hunger goes up in those households,” she said.
Food insecurity hits families with young children more than in other households, said Horton. One reason is people tend to have children when they are younger. It is also a time in their professional lives when they tend to earn less money.
Statewide, one in eight households is food insecure, said Horton. Yet one in five Vermont children is hungry.
The irony is the younger a child, the more nutrition he needs as his brain develops, said Horton.
Everyone should take advantage of the summer meals programs regardless of income level, said Horton.
That said, the agency’s summer meals funding generally goes underutilized, said Sawyer-Hartigan.
She pointed to a lack of knowledge of the program’s existence. She also said transportation plays a role. Working parents either lack the time or the fuel to take children to a meal location.
The number of summer meals programs has expanded throughout Windham County due to community interest and partnerships between local organizations such as the United Way of Windham County and local school boards.
Many Windham County towns have really stepped up to the challenge of expanding and invigorating sites with activities, she said. Many of these efforts have succeeded because of the work of multiple organizations.
Sawyer-Hartigan said one goal for the Brattleboro area summer meals programs is to feed as many children as possible. She also aims to continuously raise the quality of the food served in the summer within the program’s constraints.
This summer, Sawyer-Hartigan is working with volunteers and Cafe Services to cook with herbs and vegetables from the three Brattleboro school gardens.