First, second, third, and fourth graders at John Clark School in Hartford dined on blueberries, bananas, cereal, and milk Monday morning as they waited for state officials to arrive and help kick-off the summer meal program.
“It’s a good way to start off the day on the right foot,” Judy Buonome, a teacher at the school, said.
Receiving the breakfast helps make the children ready to learn and some of them really depend on it, she said. But the free breakfast, lunch, and dinner isn’t only for the students attending summer school. It’s for anyone under 18 years old in the neighborhood.
The program, which is mostly funded by the federal government, doesn’t ask too many questions of those coming to receive meals. Income guidelines are not required because the idea is not to discourage anyone from receiving a meal, state officials said. Last year the state of Connecticut received $1.55 million to administer the program. The bulk of that or $1.3 million was used to purchase food.
Lt. Gov. Nancy Wyman said there are still 100,000 children in the state of Connecticut who don’t know where they are getting their next meal.
“Good nutrition is essential for better learning and staying healthy,” Wyman told the students. “You can’t learn unless your stomachs are filled.”
One of the biggest barriers in the past to the free summer meal program has been access to the sites offering the meals.
This year there are more than 400 sites throughout the state offering free meals this summer. In Hartford there are 79 locations where meals are being offered, including some schools, libraries, and parks. The school sites are open between 7:30 a.m. and 8 a.m. every morning for breakfast and the only catch is you have to eat the meal there.
“You can’t take it with you,” Lucy Nolan, executive director of End Hunger Connecticut!, said. “We want to make sure it was eaten.”
Summer meals are paid for by the United States Department of Agriculture. The Connecticut State Department of Education works with the USDA to reimburse sponsors for the summer meals they provide to kids and teens, under 18, at participating summer meals locations.
Education Commissioner Stefan Pryor said there are actually 535 sites offering free meals this summer, which ranks Connecticut 5th in the country for its degree of access to the sites.
However, that still means 25 percent of the students who are eligible are receiving breakfast at the summer sites, he said.
“We’re doing well, but we need to do better,” Pryor said.
Summer learning loss is real, he said. It’s the drop in knowledge students experience when they are no longer in school.
One of the factors that continues to the learning loss is “the summer nutritional loss,” Pryor said.
That’s why this program is so important.
Lonnie Burt, director of food services for the Hartford Public Schools, said there are “great fresh fruits and vegetables, whole grains, low-fat milk, and lean proteins” available at each of the sites. She encouraged families to bring all of their children to the sites, even if they are not enrolled in summer school.
“We want to avoid any kind of a stigma that is the reason the program is open to all,” Pryor said.
About 35 volunteers will be canvassing the neighborhoods in Hartford today to inform residents of the program. For more information about the program or to find a site visit End Hunger Connecticut’s website or call 211.