WESTBROOK – While the school year may be winding down, efforts to prepare for this year’s Summer Food Program are ramping up, as Westbrook officials and volunteers work to keep food, nutrition and physical activity on students’ plates.
The program, which is federally funded by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, provides free lunch for children in low-income areas during the summer months. The meals are open to all students under age 19.
Last year, the program provided an average of 287 meals per serving-day in Westbrook.
Barbara Nichols, Westbrook schools’ director of nutrition, was in her office Friday working out some of the final details for the program, which kicks off on June 23 and features two new locations, including the recently completed community room of Hyacinth Place.
Nichols said that while the program is federally funded, it depends on volunteers throughout the community, based on the need for multiple sites in order to accommodate as many neighborhoods as possible.
"It’s a real community effort," she said. "I could not do this by myself."
She added that sites are chosen based on eligibility and interest. While some have been chosen using census data to determine low-income areas, other sites have been requested by residents, such as the Hamlet Community Room, established two years ago.
In order for a site to be eligible, the closest school has to have a free- and reduced-lunch eligibility of more than 50 percent.
This summer, there will be eight sites, including longstanding hosts such as Walker Memorial Library, Westbrook Community Center and My Place Teen Center, and the newly added Canal Elementary School.
According to Nichols, extra help has come from AmeriCorps volunteers, as part of a Preble Street Resource Center program in Portland, and organizations such as Opportunity Alliance and the University of Maine Cooperative Extension.
Brenda Bracy, who works with the cooperative extension’s Eat Well Nutrition Education program, said Tuesday that the Summer Food Program is a "safety net" for low-income children during the summer months when they may not get nutritious meals.
As part of her program, Bracy has been visiting various summer-food program sites in Portland and Westbrook for more than a decade to promote physical activity to coincide with the lunches. She said that while it’s often difficult to get kids engaged in nutrition education during the lunch period, she has been successful engaging them in activities such as jump rope.
"That part of it has been successful," she said. "They love getting outside, and I think that’s probably the most beneficial part of my program."
Bracy said that some parents have told her that the summer months are difficult, and many rely on food pantries and other sources.
Nichols said that some of the longest-running sites, such as the teen center and the library, provide their own staff in order to help with the program, which means a little less work for Nichols and her limited summer staff of three.
Another new location this summer is at the Choices Are For Everyone (CAFÉ) office in the Dana Warp Mill. CAFÉ Inc. is a creative nonprofit that works with residents with developmental disabilities. Nichols said the clients at CAFÉ will be volunteering during mealtimes, which will be a "win- win" for the program.
Nicole Anderson, a Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) education coordinator for Opportunity Alliance, a program also involved with nutrition education at various summer food program sites, coordinates with Bracy to help the two organizations cover as many locations as possible.
She said the two programs provide activity programming such as games, nutrition topics, and making healthy snacks.
The menu for the lunches is impressive given the limited options facing Nichols and her staff. Items include a turkey sub, crunchy Hawaiian chicken wrap, chef’s salad, sun butter and honey sandwich, and other favorites such as pizza and bagels with cream cheese. Each bagged lunch also includes vegetables, fruit and milk.
"It’s challenging for me and my staff to make meals that are appealing to the kids," she said.
Nichols, who has been in Westbrook for three years, but has 31 years as a nutrition director under her belt, said that through the years a lot more emphasis has been put on summer meals, but the most important factor is making sure residents are informed of the program.