School district relaunches summer lunch program

The Windham-Raymond school district is looking to bring back free lunches during the summer months for children from low-income families.

The project is a joint undertaking of the school district, town and parent volunteers and, according to School Board Chairwoman Marge Govoni, shows “it takes a village to feed children for the summer. This has really been a community venture.”

Govoni, an organizer of the project, said the district plans to host summer lunches at the town-owned Dundee Park off River Road. The program, which was previously held at Avesta Housing in South Windham, was canceled two years ago due to lack of participation and did not run last year.

School efforts such as the summer meals program, free and reduced lunches and a backpack program, which sends students home with a backpack of food on the weekend, are part of state- and nationwide efforts to address food insecurity and hunger among school-age children.

The upcoming program in Windham will provide meals to students who may not have adequate access to food during summer vacation.

According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, a household experiences food insecurity if the residents have uncertain or limited access to food for economic or social reasons. It is a term distinct from, but related to, hunger, which refers to an individual’s physiological state.

According to the Maine Department of Education, about 36 percent of students in the Windham-Raymond district qualify for free or reduced lunch. This data is taken into consideration when establishing a summer lunch program in any town.

All families in the district will receive an email from the school department with an application for the summer lunch program in May, according to Jeanne Reilly, the school district’s food services director. The application will be similar to the application for the summer lunch program, Reilly said, but families who don’t qualify for free and reduced lunch may still qualify for the summer program.

“We feel strongly there are families struggling from significant food insecurity and that this will really benefit them,” said Reilly.

At previous summer lunch programs, Reilly said, families “would come either everyday or routinely on certain days, based on their schedule.”

Dundee Park is an attractive spot for the program, said Govoni, because it has activities for the children besides the meal. After finishing their lunch, they can go swimming, play badminton or enjoy the park, Govoni said.

“If there are activities for kids to do, your program will be more successful,” Reilly said. “Lunch doesn’t take very long, so families want some additional activity. The program is a great combination of physical activity and nutrition and we’re hoping it will be successful.”

One potential barrier to using Dundee Park, Reilly said, was the park’s $50 season pass. However, the town has dedicated money in the upcoming fiscal budget to offer families who qualify for the summer lunch program a free season pass, so they can access the park.

Lunches at Dundee Park will be supervised by volunteers, organized by the district’s volunteer coordinator Michelle Jordan. At least one volunteer is needed for every shift, she said, but she would prefer to have two.

Volunteers need to be reliable and respect the privacy of those receiving meals, Jordan said.

There is no age requirement for volunteers, Jordan said.

“In fact, we think this is a great opportunity for high school and college students,” for whom the program would count toward the any volunteer hour requirements.

Finding volunteers for every summer weekday is a potential challenge, said Jordan, but emphasized that she is flexible in staffing. She said she hopes “that some families will choose to make a day or afternoon of helping since it is at Dundee this summer.”

The program will be held every weekday starting June 21 at a group of picnic tables set away from the beach. The program will not run on weekends, holidays and during severe weather, when the park is closed.

School Board Chairwoman Marge Govoni visits Windham’s Dundee Park, the future sight of the town’s summer lunch program. Readying the program to start in just two months has been a “community venture,” Govoni said.

A secluded area of picnic tables at Dundee Park will be the site for the town’s summer lunch program.