MIDCOAST—Children in Camden, Rockland, Thomaston, Warren, Washington, and Union have access to free meals all summer long, thanks to Healthy Lincoln County, a local community health nonprofit serving Lincoln and Knox counties.
Last March, when all of Maine’s schools shut down due to the pandemic, thousands of children in the state were left hungry. With the school breakfast-and-lunch program no longer available in many schools, Healthy Lincoln County stepped in, providing that safety net. Director Kate Martin called the process “fast and furious.”
“It’s usually something a local school district would take on, but because of capacity issues, they couldn’t, so the state Department of Education asked if we’d take over,” she said. “When the schools shut down, we were able to expand our Summer Meals Program to make sure kids were still receiving meals, even when school wasn’t in session.”
Though HLC has been a sponsor of the Summer Meals programs for 10 years in Lincoln County, this is the second summer they’ve extended the program to six sites in Knox County, where meals will be distributed to kids 18 and younger. [See attached flyer for locations].
According to Martin, these sites — YMCAs, schools, and libraries—were chosen because they were places where families would naturally gravitate toward.
Last year, HLC served 33,500 meals to children in Knox and Lincoln Counties from June to August with 14,500 of those meals in Knox County alone. With a grant funding the process, HLC contracts with three schools whose kitchen staff work to provide healthy breakfasts and lunches. Each distribution location relies on its own staff to dole out the meals.
“We’ve picked stigma-free locations where any kid, 18 and under can feel free to eat a meal on-site or in some places, be able to take a brown bag home with them,” said Martin.
Because the pandemic last summer presented such an unusual circumstance around in-person gatherings, the program was able to offer take-out bag lunches, something they are doing again in many locations this summer.
“With these flexibilities allowed last year and this year, it’s a lot more convenient for the parents and kids,” she said.
A typical breakfast would be yogurt, berries, and muffins and lunch might be a turkey and cheese roll-up or a chicken Caesar salad.
“There’s the bare minimum that the U.S.D.A. requires in each meal, but we really like to go above and beyond and make, nutritious, delicious meals, using fresh, fruits and vegetables as much as possible,” she said, adding, “We have special grant funding to be able to buy produce from our local farms.
The assistance this program has given parents in a pandemic cannot be overstated.
“I had a mother tell me that she brought all five of her kids to one of our sites every single day for the entire summer, and the savings she was able to accumulate allowed her to put a down payment on a house,” said Martin. “This is exactly the reason we offer this program. It helps people stretch their budget so that they can put money toward utility bills or basically anything else they need to put money toward. We make sure everyone knows that. This isn’t just for low-income families—it’s for anyone who has a need because we recognize everyone is at a different phase and stage in their lives.”
Parents have told Martin that the brown bag meals are a time-saver. “Instead of spending all of that time shopping, preparing meals for their kids, they can use the time to talk with their kids and just be with them. They can go play at the park together and then come over and grab lunch,” she said.
Parents have also reported back that the meals have also introduced new foods to their children.“Kids sometimes wait to open the bag until they get home, because it’s a surprise and they look forward to trying something they’ve never tasted before.”
“Last year our program was a reason to leave the house, but this year, it’s just one simple thing our agency can do to help out families.”
For more information visit: Summer Meals Program
Kay Stephens can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org