Summer meals program highlights growing need in the Oxford Hills

OXFORD HILLS – Groups concerned with the high rate of childhood hunger in the area are establishing at least three summer meal programs at central locations across Oxford Hills.

The sites are aimed at alleviating the strain on the area’s most food-insecure families, especially during the summer when lunch and breakfast provided to students at school isn’t available.

Beginning June 24, sites in Norway, Oxford and Paris will offer a healthy lunch, games and nutritional activities for any and all children five days a week.

"The goal of this is to have an open, fun, judgement-free zone around these meals," explained Heather Zimmerman, who is coordinating the program for the Maine Hunger Initiative, a branch of Portland’s Preble Street organization.

There are no eligibility or application requirements and no questions asked, and the meals and activities are available to any child 18 years old or younger.

Keeping "open" sites can ease the stigma some food-insecure families feel taking free food, Zimmerman said.

Summer hunger

Maine has the seventh-highest rate of food-insecurity in the U.S. According to 2010 data from the group Feeding America, almost 23 percent of Maine’s children are food-insecure and 16 percent of children in Oxford County are.

Many children from low-income households receive free or reduced-price lunch and sometimes breakfast at their schools, but when they leave for summer vacation, that resource evaporates.

For a family with two children, that means coming up with an additional 10 meals a week, or 20, if the students receive breakfast from the school, Zimmerman said.

In school districts like SAD 17, where the number of free/reduced lunch-eligible students hovers near 70 percent, that means a lot of kids aren’t getting the food they need during the summer months.

"It’s really hard to know that there are so many kids in our communities that are really excited to get out of school for the summer but are also really anxious about where their meals are coming from," Zimmerman said.

"That’s a really powerful but also really scary thought."

Only 16 percent of Maine kids who receive free/reduced lunch during the school year are able to access summer meal programs, Zimmerman said.

In an effort to reach more of those underfed kids, the Maine Hunger Initiative, partnering with other groups, has steadily expanded from the Portland area in the past few years.

This year, with more funding and VISTA volunteers like Zimmerman, it is expanding again, targeting communities with notably-high free/reduced lunch numbers.

A growing need

In SAD 17, only Otisfield and Hebron have below 50 percent free/reduced eligible student body. Paris, Harrison and Norway, have between 67 and 71 percent free/reduced-eligible student populations. At Oxford Elementary, nearly 80 percent of students qualify.

Organizers are choosing central, well-known locations for the meal sites – Moore Park in Paris, the Rowe School playground in Norway, and the entrance to the Oxford Regency park, on Skeetfield Road, in Oxford. Considering the need, a fourth site may be located near the Oxford town office.

Combined, at least 200 children a day are expected to be fed at the sites, Zimmerman said.

A meal program started last year at the town beach in Harrison will also be continued, Zimmerman confirmed.

Some children, however, are harder to reach. There is no planned meal site in Waterford, which has one of the highest free/reduced rates in the district, 76 percent.

Zimmerman acknowledged it was harder to identify central sites where children often congregate in rural towns like Waterford. A site started in Otisfield last year wasn’t as successful as expected, mainly due to its location, she said.

Organizers are trying out a new site in Otisfield this summer and are still designing ways to make rural meal programs successful.

The program is being kicked off with events on June 24 at the Norway site, June 25 in Oxford and June 26 in Paris, to coincide with the first performance of the summer concert series in Moore Park.

Volunteers will be at the sites to provide nutritious food and healthy activities from 11:30 a.m. to 1 p.m., Monday through Friday, from June 24 to August 9.

A coalition of local groups, including the Kiwanis Club, Community Childcare Center, United Way, Healthy Oxford Hills, First Congregational Church, Norway and Paris Recreation Departments, Rowe Club and Oxford Helping Hands Food Pantry, among many others, are helping organize the sites.

Zimmerman is still looking for volunteers to help out and donations of materials like picnic tables and coolers to help set up the sites.

Anyone interested in getting involved should email or call 775-0026 ext. 2084.