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Summer Meals Hit The Road In Starksboro

Thousands of Vermont children are getting summer meals at several hundred sites across the state. At 180 of those sites, anyone up to age 18 can get free meals because the town qualifies for a U.S. Department of Agriculture summer food program.

But just because the meals are available, doesn’t mean they get to the kids in need. Advocates say transportation is still a huge barrier, so in Starksboro, they’re taking meals on the road.

On a recent weekday, the staff of the Addison Northeast Food Cooperative made 380 turkey and cheese sandwiches at the Mount Abraham Union High School kitchen.

The sandwiches were packed into brown paper bags with freshly picked strawberries, cucumber slices, carrots and tomatoes.

“They’re getting about a half a cup of fresh veggies,” explained the cooperative’s director, Kathy Alexander.

The meals go to summer recreation programs, the teen center, and other sites where kids who aren’t part of an organized program can pick up lunches. There’s no paperwork to fill out and no questions asked.

“Once a school has over 50 percent of children who are on free or reduced price meals that means the whole community, all children birth through 18 can eat free in that community for the next five years,” said Barbara Saunders, co-director of the Mary Johnson Children’s Center in Middlebury, "so it gives us a real opportunity to expand programs.”

Mary Johnson Children’s Center runs a summer program in Bristol, and the center’s school age director saw a need in Starksboro, where transportation can be a problem.

“We decided we would go where the children are. And that’s where they are,” she said.

The center won a grant from the Vermont Community Foundation to lease a food truck to bring meals to three mobile home parks in Starksboro.

The bright green truck has just arrived and is parked outside in the parking lot. Saunders showed it to Shannon James, who drives the lunches to the parks. The truck’s not quite ready, so James loaded up her SUV with coolers.

And they’re off for the nearly ten miles to the first stop, a mobile home park near the center of Starksboro.

When the car pulled up a group of mothers were waiting with young kids and strollers. Dawn McCoy was there with her four children, age six to five months.

McCoy likes that the lunches are nutritious. “It’s a drop-in basis so if you’re not there one day you can just drop in and the kids like it, they enjoy it. So we come up every day.”

Eventually, Shannon James will be bringing activities in bags for the kids. And she plans to stay late one day per week at the park to read to kids. She said it’s been a rewarding job.

“Yesterday I was getting hugs from little kids, I bent down to give him his food and he gave me a big hug, he was like ‘thank you!’”

Saunders said the program tries to overcome transportation barriers for families.

“If a family lives on the north side of Starksboro, to drive their child to Bristol to the summer program and then have to go to Burlington to work, that’s a non-starter,” she said, adding that some of these kids are home alone during the day, or supervised by a relative who might not have a car. But she said the mobile home parks are often close communities and the adults who are around look out for the kids.

Even if the lunches were distributed a mile away at the elementary school, as they were in the past, the kids won’t walk there – it’s down a busy highway.

Meanwhile, Shannon James kept track of the number of lunches on a clipboard. “So far I’ve handed out 18 lunches. There’s usually more, yesterday we had 40 here, the day before we had 30,” she told Kathy Alexander.

They stayed at each stop for a half an hour. They said the teenagers come down after the littler ones have left, and soon a group of three comes, with a younger child in tow. 

“Hey guys we have a new truck coming soon,” Alexander told them, and she pulled out her phone to show them a picture so they know what to look for in the coming days.

“Should I check in on these guys?” Alexander asked, pointing to a nearby mobile home. They know some boys live there, but they didn’t come to get lunches today. Alexander knocked on the door of a trailer, but no one answered.

They packed up the coolers and headed to the next park, to hand out more lunches to kids who might otherwise go hungry in the summer months.

Hunger Free Vermont's list of open sites for summer meals can be found here.