Feeding Maine's hungry kids: summer meal programs expand

For the first time ever, every county in Maine has free summer meal sites for kids. It’s a feat that’s taken decades to achieve, since the federal Summer Food Service Program began in the late 60s. But even in 2013, advocates say, lack of awareness is the biggest barrier between hungry kids and free summer meals.
Sadiyo Jama brings her four children to this summer meal program at a Portland housing project.
There are lots of different ways to quantify hunger in Maine: We have the seventh highest rate of hunger in the nation. One in four Maine children are food insecure – which means they sometimes go without meals. And of the 83,000 children who qualify for free or reduced meals, just 16 percent use summer meal programs.

But despite these statistics, Joel Berg of the New York City Coalition Against Hunger says not everyone recognizes the extent of Maine’s hunger problem.

“A lot of Mainers are in denial. They think, oh, we’re unique. We’re self reliant New Englanders. We don’t have these problems,” Berg says. “The truth is, all Americans, including tough New Englanders, need help sometimes, and we’re all in this together. And you see that here in Maine – that there is a very serious problem. And it’s not just one part of the state. It’s every single county of the state.”

Berg is based in New York City, but he works across the U.S. to fight hunger. Three years ago his organization helped launch an anti-hunger Americorps VISTA program to establish more summer meal sites across the country. Berg was in Cumberland County Monday to visit some of the new sites in Maine.

“Even though the federal government funds these meals, you need the infrastructure, you need the parks, you need the recreation programs, you need the help from school districts, which are understaffed over the summer,” he says. “So the VISTAS are really the glue that’s holding together all these parts to make sure kids are fed each day.”

“What we’ve learned is that starting these summer meals just takes some good old-fashioned elbow grease,” says Donna Yellen, the director of the Preble Street Maine Hunger Initiative. She says VISTA members fanned out into Maine communities to find sponsors, which are often school districts. That’s the case in Portland, where Ron Adams is Food Service Director for the city’s public schools.

“Creating the food, getting it to the site is the easy part,” Adams says. “Actually getting kids out there so they’re aware of it – that’s the hard part of this mission.”

The food part is easy, says Adams, because as long as the program is managed well, the federal reimbursement fully covers meal and administrative costs. Right now Maine receives just over $1million in reimbursement for the summer meals it provides. But if the state was reaching all the children in need, it would receive over $11 million.

The trick is providing meals in places where you’re most likely to find kids in the summer – like parks, pools, or a local beach. This new site in Portland is in a housing complex. Sadiyo Jama started bringing her four children two weeks ago after hearing about the program. Today they’re eating beef stew.

“Just, my kids like, they come, new friends meet, and they play, and they read books,” she says. “So excited.”

About 16 to 25 kids a day come to this site for meals, and organizers are starting to incorporate games like bingo and story time to encourage more.

But other sites in Maine don’t need those incentives. Heather Zimmerman is an Americorps VISTA member who helped establish five new summer meal sites in the Oxford Hills area.

“In the first two weeks of the program, we served an average of 1,000 meals per week,” Zimmerman says. “And a lot it still – it grows day-by-day at a lot of these sites.”

Organizers say the traditional academic “summer slide” applies to nutrition as well. Getting more kids healthy meals in the summer, they say, will pay dividends in the school year.