Hunger Action Team to launch pilot supper program at Maple Street School

By Annie Gentile - ReminderNews
Vernon - posted Thu., Jan. 10, 2013
Members of the Vernon Hunger Action Team held their first meeting of 2013 at Bev's Corner on Jan. 8 to discuss ongoing plans and strategies.
Members of the Vernon Hunger Action Team held their first meeting of 2013 at Bev's Corner on Jan. 8 to discuss ongoing plans and strategies.

For too many in the Vernon/Rockville community, hunger and food security are major issues. Fortunately for town residents, the Vernon Community Network, a collaboration of social service, health, education and economic development providers, is working to address the problem.

About three years ago, with help from both Foodshare and the advocacy group, End Hunger CT!, the VCN formed a Hunger Action Team in Vernon, which develops strategies utilizing federal and state resources to combat food insecurity problems in town.

“Hunger was one issue in Vernon identified by the VCN, but while we had the desire to change things, we weren’t so well-defined on how to address it,” said VCN President Alan Slobodien, who is also director of Vernon’s Youth Services Bureau. “Foodshare and End Hunger infused structure into the Hunger Action Team, making a huge impact in getting us more focused,” he said. The two organizations took a strategic approach, helping them to apply for grants to address hunger issues.

At their Jan. 8 meeting at Bev’s Corner on Elm Street, Hunger Action Team members Dawn Crayco of End Hunger CT! and Monica Pacheco, director of food and nutrition services for the school district, discussed plans to launch a pilot supper program for students enrolled in the Community School program at Maple Street School.

The new initiative follows a soft-start after-school healthy snacks program, which has been a district priority, and while the participation rate for program enrollees has previously been somewhat low, it is hoped that the kick-off event for the supper program will result in increased participation. The kick-off event will be held the evening of Jan. 28 and U.S. Rep. Joe Courtney (D-2), a champion of federal programs to fight hunger, will be attending.

With the addition of the supper program, Vernon will be the rare district offering full-year meal programs that include school breakfasts and lunches, as well as a summer lunch program offered at four sites around town. Pacheco said the pilot program is important as the district recognizes the correlation between good nutrition and achievement and school performance.

“The participation rate in the federally-funded summer meals program has seen a great increase the last two summers,” said Sarah Santora, community involvement manager with Foodshare and current vice president of VCN. “The number of meals served this past summer was up 26 percent over last year, and the year before that the increase was 42 percent,” she said, citing a recent End Hunger CT! report. Santora said Tolland County is reportedly an under-served part of the state when it comes to participation in food programs and Foodshare, as a member of the Vernon HAT, was able to secure a seed grant to establish an additional community-supported summer meal site in town. She said of the 100 percent of children that qualify for the summer meal programs, statistically only about 25 percent participate, so this grant was very helpful in getting food to more children in need.

The pilot at Maple Street School is a fairly new initiative in the state that has been launched mostly in larger urban settings, Slobodien said. However, the Vernon Community Network’s model of collaboration has been successful in opening doors to funding sources for the town. For example, as a result of the VCN becoming established, the Rockville Public Library was one of four cities to receive a three-year grant from the New Alliance Foundation to address summer learning loss. “The feedback from the New Alliance Foundation was that they were very impressed by our coordination,” Slobodien said.

Santora concurred. She said funding sources for programs like to go with groups that have multiple parties at the table working on problems, such as towns, agencies, faith communities and schools, so the VCN’s collaborative model has a strong appeal.

The January meeting was also an opportunity for HAT member Bryan Flint to roll out the new Vernon Community Network website, which creates as its core concept a one-stop location for all Vernon residents to go to in order to find help from their community.  Flint encouraged all participating network members and partners to go to the site and fill in their group’s or organization’s information. The site also provides comprehensive mapping and routing information for residents to find them in town.

“The VCN spent about two and a half years developing a community plan that takes a comprehensive look at the town’s needs, its end goal for all Vernon children from birth to age 18 to be safe, healthy and productive,” said Slobodien. Development of the website was one of several strategies that came out of the plan. “The plan itself is data-driven, and we use the data points to develop strategies to address issues,” he said, adding that their work has been made possible in large part due to generous grants from the Hartford Foundation and the William Caspar Graustein Memorial Fund. “The beauty of this group is that we have a lot of people at the table who are involved in many areas of town, but we’re also a group that always welcomes new people,” Slobodien said.

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