RSU 71’s summer food program serves more than 200 kids a day three days a week

When a free school lunch saves the day in Waldo County

Mon, 07/09/2018 - 10:30am

    BELFAST — Many adults remember what it was like to have to attend summer school when they were children. On a sweltering hot day inside a classroom while one’s friends were outside playing or at camp; it’s hard enough to muster the concentration to make up for lost academic time, much less on an empty stomach.

    Perley Martin, Director of School Nutrition for RSU 71, is the man responsible for making sure none of the children in the summer school program go hungry.

    “We have a free and reduced lunch program all during the school year, but for kids in our summer school program, there’s no application to fill out,” he said. “Every kid in our summer school program gets a healthy nutritious breakfast and lunch. And, because it can get so hot certain days in the school, we don’t use the ovens; instead, we offer them three choices in a brown bag lunch that is packed in ice and transported in coolers and stored in a refrigerator. The kids are excited; because they know when it comes to lunch time, they get to sit down and eat with their friends and no one is left out.”

    For the last 10 years, the district has been providing free meals for approximately 100 students during the summer program starting after the 4th of July at three locations: Troy Howard, East Belfast and Weymouth school for three days a week. With close to 56 percent of the students qualifying for the free or reduced lunch program during the year, this makes a huge difference to a student’s comfort, physical well-being and attention span.

    In addition, Martin has partnered with the YMCA next door for the last three years to provide 100 more of their day campers with a free lunch, as well. And if that weren’t enough, Martin is working on a pilot program with the Swan Lake State Park to provide 50 Waldo county families with a summer-long free pass and lunch into the park on Mondays and Wednesdays. The state of Maine reimburses the program for every meal served.

    “I thought it was a great idea; another opportunity in our community to make parents’ lives easier and get free meals out to kids,” he said. In the first week of the program, Martin was right there, at the Swan Lake State Park site, ready to hand out brown bags to any family who approached.  “My first family customers were a local mom with three kids and they were excited to grab a lunch, at which point the mom and I had a really nice conversation. It was really rewarding to me knowing that it was rewarding to them.”

    Martin works with a small kitchen staff at East Belfast, who take more than an hour each morning to prepare the brown bag breakfasts and lunches to satellite to the various locations. The Weymouth School provides its own on-site lunches. The industrial refrigerators are packed with bushels of apples, baby carrots, cold cuts, peanut butter and jelly and milk cartons. Like an assembly line, the variety of sandwiches (tuna, PBJ and turkey) are all wrapped in wax bags and packed in marked paper bags, then loaded into a cooler. “We’re required to meet specific food guidelines and each bag meets those standards,” he said.

    Martin isn’t done seeking out ways to make sure kids in Waldo county have the food that they need.

    “We have room for growth and we know there’s definitely a need out there.”

    Martin will be submitting a press release soon to Penobscot Bay Pilot instructing Waldo county parents how the first 50 participants (on a first come, first served basis) may obtain a free pass and lunch to Swan Lake State Park for the next month.

    Kay Stephens can be reached at