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Access important as summer lunch program participation grows

As the number of New Hampshire students who qualify for federally subsidized lunches grows, so too has the need for and access to summer lunch programming.

The average participation in daily summer nutrition programs statewide increased by 275 percent from 2011 to 2013, according to a 2014 study by New Hampshire Kids Count, making volunteer efforts and state and federal grants all the more critical.

As part of the federal Summer Food Service Program administered by the state Department of Education, 24 sponsors currently serve summer meals at 154 sites across the state. Potential sponsors seeking funding can apply for money from an annual $5 million federal grant that reimburses the cost of serving free, healthy meals to students. While that grant amount isn’t expected to increase and as much as 95 percent is used for existing programs, the state is looking at potential new sites.

“We’re working quite closely with the existing partners we have to increase the number of sites we have,” said Cheri White, administrator for the state Department of Education’s Bureau of Nutrition.

Of the state’s 168,281 public school students in 2013-14, about 47,568 – or 28 percent – qualified for free and reduced lunches, which is the highest number since 2009, when 43,441 students qualified, according to the Department of Education.

“Summer is always a challenging time for families because those youth on reduced or free lunch may not have access through the normal venues,” said Maria Manus Painchaud, treasurer of the Capital Regional Food Program in Concord. “Over the past 10 years, summer months, in particular July and August, have seen high volume and increased requests from participating agencies.”

On Tuesday, the CRFP donated three tons of nonperishable food to 17 agencies as part of its Year Round Distribution project with area food pantries, soup kitchens and social service agencies. Every participating agency can receive up to 20 cases of food paid for by CRFP.

“Government-sponsored programs have experienced cuts in funding over the last five years. The cumulative effect has resulted in the reduction in some services,” Manus Painchaud said. “USDA food distributions are available to some of the agencies but not to the extent of the past.”

In Concord, where 37 percent of students qualified for free and reduced lunch, the district partners with Community Action Program Belknap-Merrimack County, which served 50,000 meals to students in Belknap, Grafton and Merrimack counties last summer.

The 21st Century Community Learning Centers, a federal afterschool funding program administered by the state, served 2,328 children meals in communities with 30 percent or more students with free and reduced lunch qualification rates, Director Suzanne Birdsall-Stone said. There are 21 CCLC programs in 24 high-poverty communities.

“The reason why it’s such a great partnership is because the USDA programs typically require some educational component that the snack is served through that period,” White said.

Not all programs operate with federal money. John Walker of Laconia launched Got Lunch Laconia three years ago and has since served more than 61,000 and expanded to 17 New Hampshire communities.

“We’ve trained these towns and turned them loose. They took what we are doing aboard and formed their own programs that fit their communities,” Walker said.

The program uses donated food and has volunteers arrange and distribute the food every Monday morning. In 2011, the program served 344 children – and in 2013 it served 570 children.

“Our hopes were that number would shrink,” Walker said. “If it were up to me, everyone could earn a living wage and these families would make enough money that they would not need to rely on free and reduced meals to get by.”

One of the communities to hop on board is Gilford, where about 26 percent, or 300 students, qualify for free and reduced lunch.

“Sometimes the needs in our community aren’t right up front. When you find out about the number, it makes you realize,” said Scott Hodsdon, executive director of the Gilford Youth Center. Almost 80 students are served meals through the program, and Hodsdon expects that number to reach 100.

(Iain Wilson can be reached at 369-3313 or iwilson@cmonitor.com.)

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