Portland summer meals program feeds students' bodies, minds

PORTLAND – For most students, summer is a time for nice weather, getting outside, and most importantly, no school.

But it may also mean a time of struggle for students who rely on the schools for one or two meals a day.

Ron Adams, the former food service director for Portland Public Schools, said more than half of the city’s students qualify for free or reduced meals, and during the summer they are at risk of not getting enough food.

"Think about it, on any given day Portland Public Schools is feeding 3,500 kids, and most of them are having both breakfast and lunch at no charge," Adams said.

To combat this, the department has been running a summer meals program, where students can get free breakfast and lunch at 18 different spots around the city. Most are open Monday through Friday; some provide breakfast and lunch, while others provide just lunch.

Sites include Deering High School, Unity Village at 28 Stone St., the Kennedy Park Community Center at 58 Boyd St., the YMCA at 70 Forest Ave., and others.

"Summer access serves a vital need," Adams said. "We’re feeding (the students) two extra meals they otherwise wouldn’t have."

The program is part of a larger initiative called Portland Summer Success – Feeding Bodies and Minds, which is a collaboration between organizations including the Preble Street Maine Hunger Initiative, Portland ConnectEd, Portland Public Schools, and others.

Michelle Lamm, of the Preble Street Maine Hunger Initiative, said her organization began in 2009, and by the summer of 2010 quickly learned there was a need in the summer for students to have access to breakfast and lunch like they do during the school year.

"We try to reach out to potential sponsors for the program," Lamm said, as well as finding locations for programming, like schools or beaches – places where "kids naturally congregate."

"Our other big focus in Portland has been to increase activities," Lamm said, with the goal of making the meal locations have more of a camp feel because there’s "often a stigma attached to (receiving) free meals."

Adams echoed that goal.

"What we really wanted to do was change the frame of reference," Adams said. "There are things going on at all the locations and you have lunch when you go. … We’re just really trying to make it so there’s no intimidation and no stigma involved."

In addition to creating more of a camp feel, Lamm said these activities are a way to keep students’ minds sharp. She said summer is a time when there is often a "slide of academic learning loss."

"That’s why it’s nice to pair nutrition with summer learning, so they’re prepared to come back in the fall," she said.

Pratt said it’s hard to know how many students will show up on a given day at any one of the 18 locations. She said the numbers have gone up overall from where they were last year, largely because the word is spreading, but there’s really no way to know how many kids will show up.

"That’s the risk you take with a site without enrolled kids," she said.

Both Lamm and Adams said awareness is key to the success of the program.

"It’s easy to make food for everyone," Adams said. "It’s really hard to make them show up at a site."

Adams and Lamm said a grant from the National League of Cities has allowed for more marketing materials to raise awareness.

The program began on June 22 and will run into August. Some spots will stop serving meals on Aug. 14, others Aug. 21, and others as late as Aug. 28.

The school year begins on Sept. 1.