Free lunches fill summer void

By Dawn De Busk

Staff Writer

NAPLES — April Noyes, a mother of two boys, said the free lunches at the Naples Town Beach cut costs in the family budget. The lunches are con­venient, too, cutting down on trips back and forth on days her sons are swimming at the public beach on Long Lake.

“We are drop-by ‘beach­ers.’ Sometimes, we don’t have time to run home and make a snack,” Noyes said.

Four-year-old Tyler Noyes did not calculate cost or conve­nience while he ate his straw­berry-banana yogurt.

“Yummy,” he said.

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Free Lunch Centers

Bridgton Community Center, now through Aug. 26.

Casco Community Center, now through Aug. 19.

Harrison, Crystal Lake Park, now through Aug. 26. Rainy days at United Parish Congregational Church.

Naples Town Beach, now through Aug. 19. Rainy days at Naples Town Gym.

Sebago Elementary School lawn, now through Aug. 19. Rainy days in the school cafeteria.

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The Naples Town Beach is one of five area-wide sites for the federally funded Free Summer Lunch Program. Through the program, no-cost lunches are provided to kids and teens living in communities where 50 percent or more of the population already receives free or reduced school lunches. The program runs from 11:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. during the weekdays.

Sponsors pitch in

Bon Appetit, which is locat­ed at St. Joseph’s College in Standish, sponsors the pro­gram for the towns of Casco, Harrison, Naples and Sebago.

“One of the key factors that interested us in the program is: It’s not just providing a lunch, but providing a nutritional lunch,” Bon Appetit General Manager Stuart Leckie said.

Contents of the lunch bag must adhere to the standards of the United State Department of Agriculture (USDA), Leckie said. So, the menu must include 2 ounces of protein in addition to the recommended amount of whole grain and dairy prod­ucts, plus a serving of fresh fruit – all deemed necessary for keeping young bodies healthy.

Leckie credits Bon Appetit employee Charlie Morton with being instrumental in the café’s role in the program. Five morn­ings a week, Morton packs the company van with hundreds of bagged lunches and drives to four locations to make deliveries.

“He’s been the link, the life saver,” Leckie said.

More than three weeks into the program, these are the approximate daily numbers of people who ate lunch at each site: Harrison, 80; Sebago, 35; Casco, 70; and Naples, 100, according to Leckie.

JACOB NOYES, 7, spreads out his lunch on his boogie board. Noyes was one of 70 kids and teenagers who took advantage of the Free Summer Lunch Program on July 7 in Naples. (De Busk photo)

In Bridgton, between 25 and 40 children and teens have been showing up at the Highland Lake public beach area for the free lunch program – which is in its second summer, according to Program Manager for Child Nutrition, Lynn McGrath.

“Last year, we started with two days a week to test the waters. This year, it went right to five days a week,” McGrath said.

As an employee of PROP, McGrath said the agency is the vehicle that got the pro­gram started, but Carmen Lone deserves kudos. Lone is being mentored to take over the lunch line-up.

“She stepped up to the plate last year; and next year, she will run the program,” McGrath said.

“We prepare meals at the Head Start location, and use the chef there. It gave her summer employment, and she’s thrilled to be preparing these meals,” McGrath said.

In addition, the Highland Lake public beach is “right there,” very accessible off Main Street and offers a scenic setting for kids to swim and play, she said.

Naples resident Noyes said the location, where free lunches are served, comes in handy for community members.

“It’s great for kids taking swimming lessons,” she said, as two young girls wrapped in beach towels ran from the water to the picnic table.

“And, my son could eat all day long,” Noyes laughed.

Almost on cue, her youngest boy fetched another snack item out of the brown lunch bag.

Noyes heard about the program sched­ule through Naples Parks and Recreation Director Harvey Price Jr., who had been spreading the word to families with school-aged children.

Those children enrolled in day camps through the parks and recreation depart­ment benefit by being where the free lunch­es are doled out.

Noyes said she also received a flyer about it before school vacation started.

Still, informing families with children about the free-lunch program has been a slight stumbling block, organizers agree.

“Every summer, I hear someone say, ‘I didn’t know the program existed,’ ” McGrath said.

Volunteers make program stay afloat

In Bridgton, the summer-time free lunch program “has tons of community volun­teers: senior citizens, food pantry volun­teers, and high school students,” McGrath said.

“That is the great thing about this pro­gram: People in the community come to help out,” she said, adding a local grocery store offered refrigeration space to store perishable items that don’t fit in the kitchen at the Head Start building.

“I am so impressed how the community comes around to support the program. I know it’ll be successful because of all the volunteers,” McGrath said.

In Naples, Songo Locks Elementary School teacher Stephanie Whiting pledged that she and her two teenage sons would help hand out lunches every other Thursday during the summer.

She said she had responded to a mass e-mail for volunteers that originated from the school’s offices.

The Portland-based woman working side-by-side with Whiting interjected excit­edly that she was the person who had sent that e-mail to the school secretary.

Summer Lunch Program Facilitator Abby Farnham is tasked with rounding up the volunteers to assist with the one-hour program five days a week. She has to fill the calendar with enough help through late August.

“First, we try to find the movers and shakers in community. It’s often people involved in the local food pantries,” said Farnham, who is affiliated with Maine Hunger Relief Initiative.

In Sebago, Jim Libby, who is associated with the Warming Hut food pantry, leapt into action to get the people needed to dis­tribute lunches in the small lakeside town, Farnham said.

Community volunteers run the sites; and each town selects a public location where children would nor­mally congregate during the summer, she said.

Turning nutritional needs into a picnic

By law, all par­ticipants must eat their lunches at the site and not take leftovers home, Farnham said.

But, the locations are places where it is also fun to play, hang out with old friends, make new friends, and have an impromptu picnic.

According to Farnham, there has been a noticeable increase in the numbers of children coming to the Naples beach for free lunches, or being there already when the lunches are provided.

“The numbers in Naples have grown since it started, and it has continued to grow. People are passing the word around. It has to be reaching a lot of Naples resi­dents, because those are the ones who use the beach. In Naples, there are a lot of summer residents, too,” Farnham said.

There are no income or proof of resi­dency requirements for anyone under 18 years old to receive a free lunch, Farnham explained.

Side-skirting the requirement paper­work for this federally-funded program makes it more accessible to the children and teens who use it – a few of whom aren’t residents, but spend the summer with a par­ent or grandparent.

“No one has the stigma of trying to qualify for a free lunch,” Farnham said.

However, the old adage “there is no such thing as a free lunch” proves true. After all, the program is funded by money on the federal level.

The sponsors are reimbursed $3.20 per meal consumed, according to Bon Appetit’s Leckie.

“That covers the cost of food, transpor­tation, and labor to make meal. We have to do 300 lunches a day to break even,” he said.

Still, he chooses not to use the commodi­ties offered by the USDA – even though it’s free.

“We maintain the Bon Appetit philoso­phy, and use the product we serve in our café,” he said, adding he sticks with local food suppliers for the program.

There is a need to be filled, especially during these trying economic times, Leckie explained.

“If you look at the stats, you know half the kids might be skipping lunch if you didn’t have this program,” he said, “because some parents just can’t afford it.”

“The Free Summer Lunch Program is a great thing that is being done for the com­munity,” he said.

“And, hopefully we can expand on it next year,” Leckie said.

For more information about free lunch sites in other towns, call 2-1-1.

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