OXFORD HILLS -Wendy Bornsgeest and her son Braydon made it to lunch at the Oxford Regency in the nick of time.
Last Friday, just as volunteers for the Oxford Hills summer meals program were starting to pack up and other children were slowly drifting home, Wendy and Braydon drove up, after speeding back from a doctor’s appointment in Scarborough.
Getting to the lunch site – which he simply refers to as "the eats" – was that important for her son, Bronsgeest said – they hardly ever miss a meal.
Wendy and Braydon are one of hundreds of families across Oxford Hills that have been attending a summer meals program put on at five sites across the area. Organizers estimate that 1,000 meals are served every week at sites in Oxford, Paris, West Paris, Norway and Harrison.
Bronsgeest, who has lived at Oxford Regency for 10 years, said the free meal helps her stretch her food stamps and also exposed Brayden to foods he might not otherwise try.
"He’s eating more fruits and vegetables now," Bronsgeest explained, as volunteers prepared a peanut butter sandwich put together with a snack of chips and broccoli for Braydon.
Feeding the need
The program is spearheaded by the Maine Hunger Initiative, part of the Portland-based Preble Street Resource Center and supported by non-profits, businesses and faith organizations across the Oxford Hills community.
The goal is to fill the gap that emerges for some families when school closes for summer vacation.
The free or reduced-cost meal provided every school day disappears, placing additional strain on families already on the edge, explained program coordinator Heather Zimmerman.
A majority of students in the Oxford Hills School District – 66 percent – are eligible for free/reduced meals. At Oxford elementary, the number hovers around 80 percent.
With so many vulnerable children in the area, anti-hunger activists specifically targeted Oxford Hills to implement a summer meals program.
The meal sites are open for any child up to age 18. The lunches, provided by RSU 16 food services, are rounded and nutritious, including sandwiches, milk and snacks. Volunteers encourage students to try new foods, especially fruit and vegetables they might not have had before.
Betty Hayes, the RSU 16 food services director, said attendance at the sites differs from day to day, but usually averages between 30 and 60, depending on the site.
The Oxford Regency site, for example, feeds around 20 kids, while a second site, near the Oxford Town Office, feeds 50 to 55 children a day, Hayes said. During one of the chidren’s concerts in Moore Park in South Paris, up to 200 kids can show up.
Parents and their kids see the sites as more than just a free meal, however – it’s also a safe, fun place where kids can come together, play games and make new friends.
Summer picnic series
"There is a lot more to this than just getting a meal," said Carolyn Brown as she watched her daughter Paige play with other kids after having lunch at Oxford Regency.
Although having the daily meal is important for her family’s food budget, the lunch program is doubly important for getting Paige out of the house and interacting with other kids, Brown said.
Her daughter, a ninth-grader at Oxford Hills Comprehensive High School, has a mild form of autism, and the program’s playful atmosphere helps lower Paige’s anxiety levels and develop important social skills, Brown said.
Paige freely admitted that without the lunches, she wouldn’t be as active.
"If this wasn’t here? Oh goodness, I’d probably be lazy at my house," she said, with a smile.
The meal sites are far removed from a dour soup kitchen – children are engaged with games and activities, running and playing in between bites of sandwich and swigs of milk. Especially popular are the program’s hula-hoops.
At Moore Park and other locations, the activities are interspersed with special musical events and other entertainment.
Even absent a musical guest, kids of all ages were still running around Moore Park during last Friday’s lunch program, oblivious to the dark clouds threatening rain.
Making sure the sites have a light, "summer camp" atmosphere is crucial to the program’s success, explained Maine Hunger Initiative Program Manager Michelle Lamm.
The goal is open, judgement-free spaces for all families, regardless of income, Lamm said, but getting families to feel comfortable with the program is still a work in progress – during pre-program canvasing volunteers advertised a "summer picnic series," rather than the impersonal "meal site."
Even though plenty of kids who attend the daily lunches aren’t experiencing acute hunger, Lamm said it’s still hard to convince some parents that their kids belong – for some, the stigma attached to hunger is too strong.
"Kids don’t care, but parents sometimes don’t want to take a handout," Lamm said.
"There’s pride there, I get that, but people have to overlook that pride and other people in the community have to … realize we’re all in it together. Everyone struggles at some point, everyone’s close to losing their job in this economy."
For the many parents who are bringing their kids to the free lunches however, the free meal isn’t the first thing on their minds.
In Moore Park, Kara Rowe was having trouble pulling her son Daniel away from the game he was playing with about 20 other children.
Rowe, who lives in Greenwood, said the free meal helped her stretch her SNAP assistance a little further. But because she home-schools her son, the social interaction the program offered was just as important, Rowe said.
Cassandra Mann, another parent, agreed. The lunches helped get her two young children, Kyle and Caehyl, out of the house and meeting new people – the meal was kind of an added benefit, she said.
"It gets us out in the fresh air," Mann said. "Instead of just running around in our backyard we’re getting out and meeting new people and my children are getting a great meal at the same time."