Few take advantage of Portland summer meals program
PORTLAND — The School Department's central kitchen, an industrial-scale food preparation operation at the former Reed School, was quiet on Friday as Food Service Director Ron Adams talked about the summer meals program.
Three days later, Adams' department would open three of the four locations it runs in between school semesters as part of a long-running, USDA-sponsored program to combat hunger. The school's food services operation joined the program three years ago, in part because Adams felt that its massive kitchen was under-utilized during the summer.
But among piles of insulated soup thermoses, a fleet of empty food-tray racks, and the kitchen's sleeping bedroom-sized pizza oven, Adams said that the summer meals program itself operates at well below full capacity.
The Food Service Department, which boasts about 60 staff members preparing 5,000 meals a day during the school year, is down to just six summer employees. Only two are on duty specifically to make the 200 meals that get distributed as part of the summer meals program.
The transition can be a surprisingly difficult one, Adams said, as the cooks figure out how to scale back.
“You’re used to doing 300 pounds of a protein for a day’s meal, and now you’re doing 20,” he said.
Throughout Cumberland County, there are plenty of children and families for whom access to nutritious food is something of a luxury: more than 12,000 students qualify for free or reduced-price lunches. In Portland, 54 percent of the district's approximately 7,000 students qualify, Adams said.
The summer meals program, which at many sites doesn't even require a sign-in sheet, would seem like a sure thing for success.
"The need is huge," Lynn McGrath, program manager for Opportunity Alliance's nutrition services, said Monday. "There's so many children that go without quality nutrition during the summer months."
But even for well-established programs like those run for 30 years by Opportunity Alliance's Kids Katering program – it has 20 locations in Portland, South Portland, Westbrook, and elsewhere, including 11 that are completely open to anyone under 18 years old, no questions asked – getting kids through the doors can be a struggle.
"It's a little-known program," McGrath said. "The number one thing I hear is, 'I didn't know about it.'"
Opportunity Alliance's summer meals sites serve about 1,400 meals a day, McGrath said, averaging out to about 70 meals per site. But in reality, a few sites with more formal programming only feed kids already participating in that programming – like the South Portland Boys and Girls' Club and some affiliated with the Portland Recreation Department, which feed many more than the average each day.
"Open" sites that serve any child who walks in, like the Unity Village Community Center on Stone Street, often feed far fewer. On Monday, the first day that Unity Village was open, just 15 kids came for lunch.
They ate quickly around a long oval conference table in the small community center, then raced to put stickers next to their names on a poster-board that tracks their meal attendance for an incentive program. Within half an hour, most had cleared out, leaving McGrath and her staff to clean up.
Most kids come without their parents, often with an older sibling, she said. They generally won't travel far – the longest trip averages about four blocks – and major roadways like Franklin Street tend to act as barriers.
Across the program, middle and high school students are noticeably absent, both McGrath and Adams said, and they likely make up the biggest segment of the eligible population that the program misses. Lunch in a community center, it appears, isn't very "cool," McGrath said.
She and other summer meals organizers hope to find ways of boosting teen participation, possibly by starting a teen-focused lunch site, which doesn't currently exist, she said.
The program has significant benefits to the kids that do come, its proponents said. Unsupervised eating during summer vacations contributes to obesity and other health programs, which the program's balanced, appropriately portioned meals fight against, Adams said.
And children who participate in the summer meals program suffer from less academic loss over the long break compared to kids from the same economic background who don't take part, said Gail Lombardi, program manager for the state Department of Education's Child Nutrition Services.
Children who are hungry also exhibit more behavior issues, Lombardi said.
McGrath would like to see the program's participation rate double. "I feel like we could make a dent," she said.