PORTLAND, Maine — As students enter their last month of summer break, early reporting on participation in the city’s summer meals programs indicates a dramatic increase from 2012.
After a concerted effort by the School Department to advertise and offer food at more locations, Food Service Director Ron Adams said attendance has probably doubled from last year. He estimated that the program has served about 250 meals a day to students on weekdays this summer, up from 125 last year.
The program is serving food at 16 locations around the city this summer, an increase from 12 last year.
“It’s really been about finding where the kids already are,” Adams said at a Deering Oaks Park event promoting the program on July 24. “This is one of those places.”
The official participation numbers will not be available until the department reports to the state in September, he said.
The program is supported by $15,000 from the U.S. Department of Agriculture and supporting grants. This year the program will likely cost about $25,000, which includes meals, staff and supplies, Adams said. The meals are served in partnership with the Opportunity Alliance, a Portland-based organization that provides community services.
At the July 24 event, school and city officials hosted about two dozen children and parents.
Superintendent of Schools Emmanuel Caulk and Mayor Michael Brennan, along with Slugger, the mascot of the Portland Sea Dogs, encouraged students to sign a summer pledge promising to eat healthy, exercise and learn throughout the summer.
“We’re here to teach you how to eat well, move and continue to learn,” Brennan said, before reciting the ABCs and counting to 10 with some of the youngest children in attendance.
The pledge, which includes “seven steps to summer success” and encourages kids to read, explore Portland and make art, also includes a grand prize drawing for lunch with the mayor and school chief, and a book of the student’s choice from Longfellow Books.
The drawing will be open through the end of summer, said Michael Dixon, executive director of ConnectED, a city-based initiative that promotes education and job opportunities.
Dixon said participation in Portland is slightly better than the average in Maine.
“We are far away from where we want to be, but activities like this will help us bolster those numbers,” he said.
In addition to the Maine partnership with Opportunity Alliance, the meals program also works with several community groups, including Preble Street, the Boys and Girls Club, and the Portland Housing Authority.
Maine ranks seventh in the nation for low-food security and more than 5,000 households in Cumberland County depend on food pantries, according to the Maine Hunger Initiative.