Michelle Monroe, St. Albans Messenger
ST. ALBANS — Contrary to the popular saying, there is such a thing as a free lunch, at least if you’re 18 and under in Franklin County.
At 10 locations around the county children and teens can get a free lunch, and in some cases a free breakfast, too.
Some of the sites are offered in schools or by recreation programs, but not all. Franklin-Grand Isle Community Action, St. Albans City Hall and the Highgate Public Library all serve as free meal sites for kids.
The program is aimed at feeding children who receive free or reduced cost lunches and breakfasts during the school year over the summer months, but is open to anyone 18 and under. No questions are asked about income or need.
“Many families are just making ends meet and having to feed their children one extra meal a day can mean something else doesn’t get paid,” said Highgate librarian Liza Comiskey.
The Highgate Public Library began offering meals two days per week this year. They’ve already doubled the number of children they’re feeding from 15 to 30.
“No one’s embarrassed to come in,” said Comiskey, adding that she likes that the meals are free to every child and no one is singled out.
The program has benefits for the library, as well. “It gets people that normally don’t come in to the library into the library, and then they come back,” said Comiskey.
As for the possible mess of spilled milk or crumbs on the floor, “It’s OK, it wipes up,” said Comiskey. She hopes to expand the lunch program to four days per week next year.
City manager Dominic Cloud also sees the benefits of feeding the community’s children from city hall. “It helps break down barriers on a number of levels,” said Cloud. The meals program, he said, gives city hall staff a chance to connect with residents that they might not have otherwise.
The Abbey Group, which provides school lunches to hundreds of schools, delivers the meals to city hall and city staffer Kristen Smith serves them. “It’s an easy thing to do,” said Cloud. This is the second year meals have been offered at the city.
Desiree Gunter who oversees the free and reduced lunch program at St. Albans City School said she approached city hall because there were no free lunch sites downtown, an area accessible to many kids and families. Saying yes was a “no-brainer,” said Cloud.
The city’s recreation department also provides free lunches at the city pool and free breakfast and lunch at the Barlow Street Recreation Center.
This week, they’re serving 100 lunches at the city and pool combined. At Barlow Street, free lunches are available to everyone attending camp, as well as the general public.
Lunches have to follow federal guidelines offering a fruit and vegetable served with every meal. Wednesday’s lunch of a chicken wrap, cherry tomatoes, grapes and milk is typical. On Thursdays The Abbey Group provides pizza, making it the most popular meal day, said Gunter. This week, the pizza came with local strawberries and baby carrots with ranch dressing for dipping.
When the Messenger visited St. Albans City School on Thursday at 12:15 p.m., eight pizzas already had been served. Kids often ask where the school orders their whole-wheat crust pizzas. “When the kids think it’s delivery pizza, I think we win,” added Gunter.
The school’s share fridge, where students can put any part of their lunch they don’t like for sharing with others, is open during the summer as well. At the end of the week, any uneaten food is taken to Community Action.
Nothing goes to waste at the recreation department’s sites either. Any food not eaten at Barlow Street School is brought to the pool. “Nothing goes to waste,” said Claudette Bostwick, who oversees the recreation department’s meals.
The recreation department began offering meals a few years ago because it saw the need. “We would have kids who would show up at eight in the morning. They never left,” said recreation director Kelly Viens, staying even when the pool was closed for lessons. It was obvious they had no food, according to Viens.
Community Action, too, is in its second year of offering free meals. The meals from The Abbey Group may only be served to children, but because Community Action also operates Northwest Family Foods, a food shelf, they are able to use their stores to feed parents as well, said executive director Robert Ostermeyer.
“We have families that are pushing strollers a half mile or so to get breakfast for their kids,” said Ostermeyer.
Richford & Enosburg
In addition to the new site, the county is home to sites that have been in operation for years. In Richford, the Northern Tiers Centers for Health (NOTCH) has been serving lunch to 100 kids a day or more for nearly 20 years. This year they’ve added breakfast.
Meals are offered in conjunction with NOTCH’s summer camp, but are open to anyone. Older kids will drop in just for lunch, said Kathy Benoit, who oversees the summer program. “We also see families with young children who just come to eat,” she said.
At Enosburg Falls Elementary School, children have been receiving a free lunch for 15 years. They now offer breakfast, as well. “We’re feeding about 160 a day,” said food director Earleen Bosley. Enosburg, too, serves lunch to students attending summer programs as well as any child or teen that comes in.
“The longer a program has existed in a community, the more people trust it and use it,” said Anore Horton, director of child nutrition programs for Hunger Free Vermont.
Horton also advocates adding activities to the meals program such as the summer camp programs operated by numerous local schools and NOTCH. “Food is only one thing that kids in low income families need,” she said.
“Low income kids tend to lose three months of reading skills and 2.5 months of math skills during the summer months,” said Horton. The academic achievement gap between middle income and low-income kids is “really a summer gap,” she added.
There’s also a need for physical activity, according to Horton, who added summer is the time of greatest weight gain for kids.
Many adults remember summer as a time for playing outside, but for today’s kids it frequently means the opposite. “Often what these kids are doing is they’re locked in the house all day,” said Horton. “It’s the time of day when they’re most sedentary.”
Horton also encourages all families regardless of income to take advantage of the free meal sites. “It’s meant for every kid,” she said, and the more kids who use the site the better for the program.
The meals are paid for by the U.S. Dept. of Agriculture and are available in communities where at least 50 percent of the students receive free and reduced lunch, explained Horton.
If a community as a whole doesn’t hit that threshold, but a geographical segment known as a census tract does, then free meals can be offered to children and teens from a location in that tract. That’s how the Highgate Public Library was able to qualify as a free meal site.
There is also the option of a closed site, in which schools can offer free meals to all children in the program provided at least half of them qualify for free and reduced meals. There are 14 closed sites in Franklin County.
Meal options in Franklin County are typical for the Vermont, which is fourth nationally for percent of kids accessing summer meals, said Horton. Statewide, there were 31,000 students enrolled in the free- and reduced-cost lunch program last year, but only 7,420 kids accessed free meals in the summer months.
“Compared to most of the rest of the country, Vermont is doing better, and yet we have such a long way to go,” said Horton.
In Franklin County, only two schools, Swanton Schools and Missisquoi Valley Union, qualify as open sites but don’t have them, said Horton.
Because Swanton qualifies any organization in Swanton wanting to operate an open meal site could do so, including churches, libraries, recreation programs, even the town or village. In Brattleboro, the town operated 14 summer meal sites for years before recently handing the program over to the school, according to Horton.
To find a summer meal site anywhere in the state, call 2-1-1.