Vernon summer lunch program finding ways to reach more families

By Steve Smith - Staff Writer
Vernon - posted Fri., Jul. 26, 2013

While there are 143,000 children in the state of Connecticut who receive free or reduced lunches, only about 25-percent of them utilize the free lunch programs during the summer. The Connecticut No Kid Hungry campaign is a federally-funded partnership between End Hunger Connecticut and Share Our Strength – a national organization working to end childhood hunger.

The summer lunch program provides free, nutritious lunches to any child under 18, regardless of whether they partake in a school lunch program. There are 400 sites across Connecticut that provide the service, and four of them in Vernon – Henry Park, Park West Apartments, Talcott Park and Maple Street School.

Vernon's Director of Youth Services Alan Slobodien said about 150-175 lunches are served daily at all four sites. The Community Renewal team of Hartford provides the lunches. “There is no sign-up,” he said. “If you show up, and are under 18, you get a lunch.”
To make the experience positive for the children participating, many summer meals locations have activities such as arts and crafts, team sports/outdoor activities, board games, or reading activities.

“Our history is that if you are just serving lunches without some other activity, you get less participation,” Slobodien said.

“We spend some time trying to recruit volunteers and share best practices with sponsors to find that extra thing that will draw in kids,” said Dawn Crayco of End Hunger CT! “If we include activities in these sites, the kids are going to be more active and engaged.”

Many children who take part in Youth Services summer program go to Talcott Park, and take part in kickball or baseball, along with others who partake in the lunch program. At Park West, speakers are brought in, and other activities are being planned. Certain summer meals sites also have cooking classes, nutrition education lessons, gardening sessions, and/or visits from local community guests.

Volunteers must go through a training program to help, but they must have taken part in a training program at the beginning of the summer.

Slobodien said that one of the best parts of the program is that there is no registration, and there are no restrictions other than the age, and that younger children are expected to be accompanied by an adult. There are also some social opportunities, and a chance for some Youth Services outreach.

“A lot of families come, and the parents bring their kids,” Slobodien said. “They are getting to meet and talk with each other. It's a great way of socializing, and we are also able to share information about resources parents are looking for.”

“I don't think any program that I've worked on generates as much of a sense of community as the Summer Food program does,” Crayco said.

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