BANGOR, Maine — Summer for children who rely on free and reduced-price school lunch programs during the school year may mean being hungry. But a community effort in Bangor is ensuring children can eat well at lunchtime, even when school is out.
Barbie Hill of Bangor brings her daughter, niece and nephew to the community center for lunch every day in the summer. She also uses the lunch time to do homework for her online classes.
“I’m thankful and a little tearful. My nephew is a hard-to-handle child, but when he comes here he knows he’s going to have a good day,” Hill said. “Ever since he started coming here, he’s been better. He can cool off and run around. It’s been great.” Hill hasn’t had many discipline problems since.
The lunch program at Bangor Housing Authority is run by the Good Shepherd Food Bank, which became a sponsor of the USDA’s Summer Food Service Program three years ago. The food bank added two additional sites for the program this year, for a total of five locations, where free lunch is provided for children age 18 and younger.
However, the Bangor Housing Authority wants the program to be more than lunch. Once kids are done eating, they can participate in activities as well. It provides a taste of a camp-like experience for those who can’t afford it.
This week’s theme is pirates, with a scavenger hunt included. There are also soccer balls to kick around and hula hoops to play with.
For JoAnn Bourque, the summer lunch program coordinator for Bangor Housing Authority, the activities are an integral part of the program.
“I understand how important having support from people is,” Bourque said. “Having other activities for the kids is important. Growing up, I never went to summer camp. Having that for these kids means a lot. All the fun stuff we do really makes a difference for them.”
All in all, the kids spend only a little more than an hour with the lunch program, but the benefits go far beyond the time.
“The reality is, without this program kids will go without food, without relationships, without a sense of belonging. It provides a lot more than a meal for these kids,” Cathy Hamel, community outreach director at Bangor Housing Authority, said. “It sends [the message] to young people in the community that we care about them. They know that they have the support and that they are important to us.”
There is little screening at the door to any of the Good Shepherd Food Bank’s sites. Any child under the age of 18 is offered lunch for free, which makes it difficult to predict the number of lunches needed. The USDA reimburses sponsors for 100 percent of the meals consumed, so sponsors like Good Shepherd Food Bank absorb the initial cost of meals.
They also provide the food but rely on the five community partner locations throughout Bangor and Brewer to set up the activities and the Bangor High School Nutrition Program to assemble the meals, along with many other volunteers and community groups’ support.
“The intergenerational community building — I think it’s just the way a community should work, you know,” Hamel said.
In an area where many students receive free or reduced-price school lunches, providing a solution for lunch during the summer is essential to the children’s well-being.
As Downeast School in Bangor reached 98 percent participation in the program, the Maine Department of Education approached Good Shepherd Food Bank about sponsoring summer lunch sites in the area.
“Kids come to rely on the school lunch program. The reality is, in the summer you go without. It greatly impacts kids’ ability to come back to school and learn,” Melissa Huston, of Good Shepherd Food Bank, said.
The average participation in school lunch programs in the area has increased 30 percent in the past three to five years, creating the 60 percent average participation in the free and reduced-price lunch program in the Bangor School System.
One in four children in the state experiences chronic hunger, so addressing the issue doesn’t stop in Bangor. In Maine, 60,000 children are living in food insecurity, meaning they don’t know where their next meal is coming from.
Of the 102 sponsors supporting 342 sites in Maine, the Lewiston School District sponsors 14 sites, and Regional School Unit 24 in Ellsworth added four new sites this year, according to the Maine Department of Education.
School districts represent the majority of the sponsors, with 64 groups, but governmental groups, including the City of Calais, which has five sites, hold six sponsoring groups.
Maine is ranked third in food insecurity in the U.S. The state ranked seventh last year, according to the USDA.
The Maine Senate in February overrode Gov. Paul LePage’s veto of LD 1353. The bill requires schools with more than half their students qualifying for free or reduced-priced lunches that hold summer activities to take advantage of the federal USDA Summer Food Service Program.
In 2013, more than 346,000 summer lunches were handed out in June, July and August. Schools provided about 217,000 of those meals, according to the Maine Department of Education.
However, making connections between school groups and the Department of Education has proved a challenge.
In April, the Maine Legislature passed a law to establish a task force to end student hunger in Maine, without the signature of the governor.
The emergency measure, which took effect immediately, is exploring ways to increase student access to food along with leveraging up to $30 million in federal funding available to provide school breakfast and lunch to students.
The task force supports LD 1353 by connecting eligible districts with community partners to establish more summer food programs.
According to the Maine Department of Education, there are 75 new sites this year; 57 of those sites are sponsored by school districts.
But at sponsor sites across the state, hearing “I got peaches” yelled in excitement across the tables is what matters. It’s about the teachable moments, such as when kids can put food they don’t want on the “share table” to help others who want seconds.
“They get to see the same familiar faces,” Hill said. But most of all, “[They] get to hang out and be kids.”
The five lunch locations in Bangor and Brewer supported by Good Shepherd Food Bank are free and open to any child under age 18.
Lunches sponsored by Good Shepherd Food Bank are located at the following sites:
-Capehart Community Center (Bangor Housing Authority): Mon-Fri 12-2 p.m. through Aug. 29 at 161 Davis Rd. Bangor.
-Griffin Park: Mon-Fri 12:30-1:30 p.m. through Aug. 29 at 194 Griffin Park Rd. Bangor.
-Bangor Public Library: Mon-Fri 12-1 p.m. through Aug. 8 at 145 Harlow St. Bangor.
-Second Street Park: Mon-Fri 12-1 p.m. through Aug. 29 at Second St. Bangor.
-Brewer Housing Authority: Mon-Fri 12-1 p.m. through Aug. 22 at Rinfret Drive Brewer.
A shuttle bus makes stops around the Capehart area from 12-12:30 p.m. and picks up at the Griffin Park location at 12:35 p.m. if children there would like to participate in the activities at the community center. The bus picks up in the New Capehart neighborhood from 12:55-1:10 p.m. For more specific shuttle stops, the Bangor Housing Authority asks for you to call their main office at 942-6365.