Filling the void

Experts may say the economy is getting better in light of the bulls on Wall Street, lower unemployment figures and rising home prices, but for those stuck in a low-paying job, life is downright difficult. Trying to pay the bills on $8 or $9 an hour can be an exercise in frustration and anxiety. And futility.

Modern America is still far from the economic powerhouse it should be in which everyone who wants a job can find one, and those jobs pay a living wage that allows you to cover your bills and maybe have some extra for a rare splurge. Since 2008 – and before that, even – national news reports have been filled with reports of people working two or three jobs and still struggling to make ends meet. We Americans have crushing credit card and student debt. We contend with high housing costs, high property taxes, high food prices – especially for the healthy stuff like fruit, vegetables and meats. And we have to keep up our automobiles amid sky-high gas prices and maintenance bills.

So, people in need will take a breather from the pressure of daily living expenses any time they can. In recent years, the state Department of Education, in association with nonprofit organizations, town and county governments, as well as the federal government, have begun offering more and more free summer lunch sites for kids. This summer, there are 337 such sites located all around the state. There are more than 50 such sites in Cumberland County, overseen by the Preble Street Resource Center in Portland with food donations coming from Good Shepherd Food Bank and government sources.

According to Gail Lombardi, director of the child nutrition programs for the state education department, the free lunches fill a need between the end of school in June and the fall. "Hunger doesn’t end when the school year ends," she says. The summer meals, according to the program’s requirements, are held only in areas where more than 50 percent of the schoolchildren qualify for free or reduced lunch during the school year.

According to Michelle Lamm, who oversees the Cumberland County meals on behalf of Preble Street, about 70 percent of eligible kids take advantage of subsidized lunch during the school year. In the summer, 18 percent of those kids, on average, are finding their way to a summer lunch site. Those numbers are on the low side, it seems, and organizers are unclear why. In fact, Windham’s lone meal site closed in mid-July after five straight days of no takers. But in neighboring Gray, more than 150 kids arrive on a daily basis. Lamm said it may have to do with what other games or activities are provided, which can help reduce the associated stigma.

For those sites that do draw visitors, these meals are welcome relief for both the kids who appreciate something good to eat and their parents who can’t afford to pay for yet another meal. And for parents with several children, the savings are multiplied.

While lunch may not sound like an expensive proposition, according to Lombardi the summer lunch service is a lifeline for parents struggling to make ends meet.
"It offers a helping hand. It frees up some of their funds to make sure they can pay their other bills," she said.
It’s a stark fact of life in our "new normal" America that even the minimal expense of lunch has become a challenge to some. While no one wants to see American kids worrying about where their next meal coming from – a phenomenon known as food insecurity – having a summer meal program in the neighborhood is a big help for those who need it. And it’s a benefit for our society to provide a practical support foundation for these kids in hopes they will have the power to break the cycle of poverty.

While we long for a day when there’s no need for subsidized food, we know that day is nowhere near. So, until that happens, the free summer lunch is a good way to fill the void.