MACHIAS, Maine — In Washington County, where poverty dominates, more than 60 percent of all 4,429 school children qualified for free or reduced school meals last fall.
And in some areas of the county, the rate of youngsters from low-income families qualifying for the federally funded food assistance program is at or near 100 percent.
At Pleasant Point’s Beatrice Rafferty School and Milbridge Elementary, 90.16 percent and more than 85 percent of students, respectively, qualified for food assistance. At Wesley Elementary School, every student qualified — 100 percent, according to statistics kept by the Maine Department of Education.
So what happens to those children when the free breakfasts or low cost lunches their school provides stop and school vacation begins? They don’t eat, was the conclusion of more than a dozen people gathered in Machias on March 15 for “Hunger Doesn’t Take a Vacation,” a program to establish free summer meal sites for children.
“How do we get nutritious meals to your children?” Gail Lombardi of the Maine Department of Education asked. Despite the overwhelming need in Washington County — all but three of the 37 schools have more than 50 percent of their students qualify for free and reduced lunch — only three open meal sites were established last summer, in Danforth, Vanceboro and Pleasant Point.
But this year, at least 10 sites are being assessed and people at the meeting represented Machias, the University of Maine, Lubec Elementary School, Cobscook Community Learning Center in Trescott, the Maine Farm to School Network, Washington County: One Community, the Edge Program operated by Sea Coast Mission of Harrington, and Washington Academy in East Machias.
“We have funds,’’ Lombardi promised. “And there is no cap on meals.” Through the U.S. Department of Agriculture, summer meals are reimbursed at a rate of $1.98 per breakfast, $3.47 per lunch and 82 cents per snack.
The federally backed program subsidizes sponsors — such as schools, communities, churches or businesses — for administrative and operating costs, the costs of food and other supplies, as well as space for the food service. With plenty of funding to get the meal sites up and running, what Lombardi said the program needs are sponsors. “For years, schools took the lead but this really needs to be a community effort,” she said. “Maybe the school isn’t the best location for meal sites. Maybe it is a park or other place.”
Lombardi said the meals are simple — a sandwich or wrap, a vegetable and fruit, and milk for lunch, for example — and take little preparation. She said sponsors could serve breakfast, lunch or both. They could even provide meals for parents if they wanted.
But finding meal prep sites and funding sponsors are difficult, she said. Any government agency, non-profit or church can sponsor a meal site, she said, and the sponsor is responsible for the overall management of the program. She suggested that possibly one site could serve several communities. “Some places use one paid staff person and the rest are volunteers,” she said.
Another big problem, Danielle Cartcofe of the food service at Lubec Elementary School said, is reaching children without transportation to the sites. Lubec plans on linking its meal site with summer recreation programs which bring a large number of children into the school. But, Cartcofe said, “The really severe need kids are not in those programs. We are not going to reach them.”
“I can see that transportation will be a key issue,” said Regina Grabrovac of the Maine Farm to School Connection.
Lombardi said one central Maine community is using a school bus to bring free lunches to the children. “This could be an answer where there are transportation systems already in place,” she said. Some programs already established in other parts of Maine look for outside funding, Lombardi said, from businesses, banks and credit unions. Some also augment the meal with a bit of enrichment such as bike safety programs and school gardening projects.
“All the way from Sullivan to Eastport there are a lot of potential ways to make this work,” said Alan Majka of the University of Maine Cooperative Extension, which sponsored the forum. “And there are a lot of ways to get past the potential barriers.’’
Majka said groups that did not attend the forum but have expressed interest in establishing a meal site on the eastern side of the county include Mano en Mano in Milbridge and the Eastport Ecumenical Association.
Majka said that many summer camps, such as the camps held for children at the University of Maine at Machias, build the cost of food into their fees. “They could greatly reduce their costs if they participate in this program, thereby letting even more children participate,” he said.
The next meeting of the group will be at 11 a.m. Wednesday, April 3, at the Cooperative Extension conference room at 28 Center St., Machias. The meeting will be an opportunity to narrow down possible sponsors and sites, as well as deal with issues such as transportation and outreach.
For more information, contact Alan Majka at Cooperative Extension at 255-3345 or firstname.lastname@example.org.