Free Summer Food Programs Looking to Increase Participation

PORTLAND, Maine – Summer is a time for kids to get a break from school and have some fun. But it’s also a time when hunger can become a problem, as kids don’t have access to school breakfast and lunch programs.

Maine has hundreds of summer meal sites where kids can get free lunches throughout the week. But the program only has about an 18 percent participation rate.

Summer meal programs across the state are trying to boost their numbers.

Every weekday, lunch is delivered to Peppermint Park in Portland, where anyone ages 18 and under can eat for free. On this Tuesday, as soon as the boxes of meals arrive, kids crowd around Lynn McGrath as she unwraps the options.

“Do you want a chicken wrap or do you want peanut butter and jelly?” she says.

McGrath is from the Opportunity Alliance, which is one of the sponsors of the summer meals program in Portland.

“We have about 24 locations around Portland and Cumberland County and this is one of our newer ones,” she says. “It’s one of the ones we felt was really important because it’s in a really high risk neighborhood for kids.”

McGrath and others are trying to spread the word that these free lunches, funded by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, are available.

USDA Program Specialist Greg Piotrowicz says about 23 million kids across the U.S. take part in the National School Lunch Program during the school year, but once school is out, the number who participate in the Summer Food Service Program takes a dive to under four million.

“So less than 20 percent of the kids who are eligible for free and reduced-price lunch take advantage of the summer meals program,” he says.

A few years ago, Portland started providing both food and activities at the same location to double the incentive for kids to participate.

At this picnic, the city is pulling out all the stops, with ukulele lessons, games, face painting and a table with books free for the taking. Mike Dixon of Portland Connected says these offerings continue regularly.

“We actually have almost every day of the week, at almost every site, some sort of learning or enrichment activity going on,” he says.

Other summer meal programs in Maine are working to boost participation, using attractions such as bounce houses to get kids to stop by.

But even with extra activities, transportation can be a problem, especially in rural parts of the state, says Michelle Lamm of the Maine Hunger Initiative.

“Even in Naples we had a site at the beach and two miles down the road was a mobile home park, and we had heard from the community people weren’t going to the beach just two miles down the road,” she says.

The stigma of accepting a free meal can be a challenge, but the thinking is that promoting the free lunch sites as community picnics may encourage more participation.

At the Portland picnic, Timothy Brewster and his 4-year-old daughter Alysia don’t need any convincing, as she delights in the peanut butter in her lunch.

“It’s two peanut butters!” Alysia says.

“Yeah, they give you a lot of peanut butter,” Timothy says.

Timothy Brewster actually helps prepare these meals. He says most days, about a half dozen kids show up at this particular location for lunch. He says the kids love it, it’s just that more families need to know about it.