By Shane Rogers
Good news: Vermont ranks third in the country for serving free summer meals to children. The bad news: Vermont is still only reaching 33.3 percent of the children who qualify for free or reduced lunch during the school year.
School lunches and summer meals provide in-need children with a source of important nutrition that helps them learn and stay healthy. Both are funded through the U.S. Department of Agriculture. However, despite the well-known benefits of summer meals—helping parents stretch their food budgets, providing a safe place for children during the summer, and mitigating summer learning loss—participation in USDA’s Summer Food Service Program is jarringly low across the country.
According to Food Research Action Center’s annual summer meals report, “Hunger Doesn’t Take a Summer Vacation,” during the 2014-2015 school year, 20.1 million kids across the country received a free or reduced lunch each day. Of those 20.1 million kids, less than one-sixth, or 3.2 million, received a meal each day during the summer. While the percentage of children receiving summer meals compared to school lunches varies widely from state to state, ranging from a 6.4 to 51.9 percent, the general consensus is that the numbers are way too low.
As the numbers reflect, providing summer meals comes with a whole set of challenges that aren’t necessarily experienced during the school year. For example, in rural states like Vermont, lack of personal and reliable public transportation limits the access of low-income families to meal sites. Also, those serving summer meals must find creative solutions to bring food to the kids.
The Lunchbox Food Truck
In Vermont’s Northeast Kingdom, one organization is helping to drive the conversation around increasing summer meals participation—literally. The Lunchbox food truck can be seen parked and serving free summer meals to everyone 18-years-old and younger along with adult meals for purchase in the towns of Newport, Barton, and Island Pond each week during the summer.
Run by Green Mountain Farm-to-School (GMFTS), a nonprofit in the Northeast Kingdom working to connect farms, schools, and communities through food and education, the Lunchbox has been increasing their number of summer meals served each year since it hit the road in 2013, while also serving over 50 percent of local food from area farmers.
“In the Northeast Kingdom, one-in-three children are considered food insecure, which contributes to the great need for summer meals in our communities,” says Katherine Sims, founder and executive director of GMFTS. “One of the biggest challenges we face in providing those summer meals is reaching kids that are spread out over large areas. That’s why we thought a meals site with wheels would be the best way to connect with as many kids as possible.”
In an effort to increase participation in the summer meals program, GMFTS works to create partnerships with institutions and community members. For example, in Barton, the Lunchbox sets up outside the public library during their weekly story hour, which attracts kids and families each week from the community. The Lunchbox also provides educational opportunities such as “Meet Your Farmer” days and a bike safety day.
“Our partnerships with the community are an integral part of the Lunchbox program,” says Rebecca Mitchell, who manages the Lunchbox program as the consumer education coordinator with GMFTS. “They allow us to provide more kids with the nutrition they need during the months where a good meal can be hard to come by.”
The Lunchbox serves hundreds of summer meals each week. Still, like throughout the rest of the state, there are still more children that can be reached. Helping individual sites are organizations like Hunger Free Vermont. The organization works to connect families and children to meals sites throughout the state by compiling a comprehensive list in each county and providing technical assistance. Ultimately, though, just one thing isn’t going to increase participation.
“Hunger doesn’t end with the last bell of the school year,” says Mitchell. “In order to make sure kids are getting the nutritious meals they need, it’s going to take everyone coming together, spreading the word, and helping get families out to summer meals sites.”
For more information about a summer meals program in your area, visit Hunger Free Vermont at www.hungerfreevt.org.
-Shane Rogers is the communications and development coordinator for Green Mountain Farm-to-School.