The program has been underway for about three weeks, and is currently serving lunch or breakfast to between 60 and 125 youth per day. There are no income or residency requirements, all youth age 18 and under are eligible for the free meal. All they have to do is show up and eat.
Breakfast and lunch are offered at Twin Valley High School, while lunch is also available at Deerfield Valley Elementary School. The meal program at Whitingham Elementary/Twin Valley Middle School ended last week, after summer programs there wound down.
According to Twin Valley food services manager Lonny Paige, the program is a joint venture between the Twin Valley schools, the Deerfield Valley Rotary Club, the Vermont Department of Education, and Hunger Free Vermont. But what it really needs is to be taken advantage of by area families.
“We need total community support,” noted Paige. “We need the use, otherwise we can’t afford it.”
The program needs the support, according to Paige, to continue beyond the first year of operation. Paige noted that the current use patterns were good, but needed to continue through the rest of the program, which ends August 10.
“We serve three different types of sandwiches,” said Paige, “and two to three accompaniments.” While the food isn’t necessarily gourmet, Paige is well-known for serving food kids like. The menu this week included a chicken and Caesar salad wrap, an Italian wrap, ham or turkey sandwiches, and the venerable peanut butter and jelly sandwich.
The local Rotary Club was instrumental in getting the program off the ground.
“The Rotarians have been phenomenal,” said Paige. “They’ve spearheaded the whole thing. They’ve helped in so many ways. Last week, I was behind in prepping lunches, so they jumped in the kitchen and started packing boxes.” Rotary volunteers have been delivering food daily from the kitchen at TVHS to the two other meal sites at DVES and Whitingham.
According to Rotarian Arlene Palmiter, the program had its genesis during the long-term recovery planning process after Tropical Storm Irene. “I got a call from Carmen Derby (Director of the United Way of Windham County), who brought up that Wilmington and Dover had never had a summer lunch program.”
Palmiter took the ball and ran with it. After getting basics on the program, she approached Paige, who said he had also been trying to find a way get a summer lunch program off the ground.
“I went to Rotary and said can we spearhead this project,” said Palmiter. “We had 23 volunteers right off the bat. That’s more than half the club.”
The Rotary Club decided their members could be the program’s arms and legs, distributing the food Paige prepared at TVHS. The school’s principal, Bob Morse, is also a Rotary member, and he, Paige, and other club members gained the approval from the school board.
Meal sites are reimbursed from the Vermont Department of Education for the meals served, just like schools are during the school year. The DOE is reimbursed for the meal payments by the US Department of Agriculture.
Paige was also able to secure a $1,500 grant from the state, and another $700 grant from Hunger Free Vermont to help launch the program.
Paige said that HFV has been especially supportive, and is touting his multipartner program as a model for other areas of the state.
“What’s really unusual is the partnership with the Rotary,” said Amanda Caron, of Hunger Free Vermont. “Using the Rotary helps to reduce costs. It also makes a more sustainable model, where multiple people in the community have a stake in it.”
Caron also explained that the reason the Twin Valley site can offer free meals to all youth is that the school district has more than half of its students participating in government-sponsored free and reduced meal programs during the school year.
“The summer food program is an extension of the school lunch program,” said Caron. “But in the Deerfield Valley’s case, it allows more flexibility than they have during the school year. It helps fill that gap in nutrition.”
According to Caron, there are 205 summer meal sites statewide, up from 171 last year. She attributed that large jump to increased awareness efforts by Hunger Free Vermont. “This is the first year dedicated to promoting the program,” said Caron. She also cited the Windham County Hunger Council as instrumental in getting the Twin Valley program up and running.
One other benefit for local kids is that the program allows Twin Valley High School students to complete some of their community service obligations.
To drop another cliché, the program appears to be a “win-win” for the community. As long as families continue to support the program by sending their children to eat, the program has a chance to continue beyond this first year.
Breakfast is served at the Twin Valley High School cafeteria from 8 to 8:30 am. Lunch is served from noon to 12:30 pm. The program runs through August 10. DVES lunch is served from noon to 12:30 pm, and the elementary school program will end August 3. Adults are welcome to have lunch with their children, but will have to pay a small fee for their meal.
Paige stressed the importance of a high volume of participation in the program, so it can return for a second summer in 2013.
“We have to try to help parents understand it’s a free lunch, baby!”