Free meals for children

The Preble Street Maine Hunger Initiative (PSMHI) provides hunger relief to children during the summer at free summer meal sites positioned throughout Cumberland County. This year, Windham once again has a site of its own. Free lunch is served to children aged 5-18 from Monday through Friday, weather dependent, from 12:30 p.m. to 1 p.m. at Dundee Park, off Presumpscot Road.

Michelle Lamm, PSMHI program manager, said Windham has had summer meal sites previously, but was not able to find a site last year. This year, Goodwill NNE Americorp VISTA (Volunteers in Service to America) volunteer Danielle DiCenzo worked with several key players in Windham and Westbrook to get the site up and running. That collaboration included Parks and Recreation Director Linda Brooks; Director of School Nutrition for RSU 14 Jeanne Reilly; School Board Chair Marge Govoni; Volunteer Coordinator for RSU14 Michelle Jordan, and Director of School Nutrition for the Westbrook School Department Barbara Nichols.

In order to qualify for the program, a site must be at a school where 50 percent of children receive free or reduced lunch, or in an area of need based on census data, DiCenzo said. The challenge in RSU14 is that the schools don’t qualify, but there are still around 900 children in the district who receive free or reduced lunch through the school nutrition program, making it clear that there is still a need.
“Jeanne Reilly has been a really strong supporter every year to try to reopen a site so her kids could access this,” Lamm said.

The meals for Dundee Park are prepared in Westbrook, which has multiple summer meal sites. As the sponsor, DiCenzo said, the Westbrook School Department is responsible for administrative paperwork, overall training, and receives the reimbursement for the meals.

The summer meals program is a federal nutrition program, similar to the school lunch program, said Lamm. Through the program, sites can offer two meals or snacks per day, but cannot offer both lunch and dinner. The Dundee park site offers lunch only.

The initiative seeks to offer other enrichment activities at the meal sites as well, Lamm said. This might include nutrition education, gardening, or literacy activities – anything to give it a more camp-like feel.
“We like to say that kids can come get a meal and have fun,” she said. Dundee Park has a natural camp feel with the beach and recreation area.

Although there is an admission cost at Dundee, DiCenzo said that Reilly helped arrange for some passes to be available to families, and did outreach through the school Backpack Program to get those passes into the hands of families who might need them. She said there were approximately 20 passes given out, and that allows the families not only to get meals for the children, but also to enjoy the park all summer.
Staffing arrangements for the sites vary, but at the community sites, volunteers often serve the meals.

Volunteers for the Dundee Park were located through Jordan, an announcement on Volunteer Maine, and community members who saw the program in action and stepped in to help. Volunteer Marisa Washburn and her children, Ella and Cole, got involved through Jordan. “It was a wonderful opportunity, and both of my kids were totally interested in helping to volunteer and help out in the community as much as we could,” said Washburn. Twelve year-old Cole added, “It seemed fun, and it’s good to help the community.”

The number of meals served daily averages to about 20, with the actual number changing frequently, often due to varying weather conditions. A mini-grant from the Good Shepard Food Bank allowed the site to purchase a mini-fridge to store left over meals, and pay for the van transportation for the daily meals from Westbrook.

The support from Americorp VISTA is an important aspect of the program, Lamm said. The volunteers do the organizing, build relationships, and find future leaders. “Danielle was pivotal in organizing the Windham group. Her role is to set that stuff up, do capacity building, then slowly step back and hope they are able to run it with everything she has set in motion,” said Lamm.

Lamm said that in 2010, Maine was ranked 23rd in the nation for summer meals participation. In the last year, Maine has climbed to number six. “We’ve seen a lot of growth and I think it’s due to all the hard work of all the different partners across the state – the Department of Education, Preble Street Maine Hunger Initiative, Good Shepherd Food Bank, all the sponsors – but we have a lot more work to do. I think we’re only reaching 20 percent of eligible kids,” said Lamm. With summer hunger hard to combat, she said, all USDA federal nutrition programs must be maximized to have the biggest impact.