Community News Service
The halls at Shelburne Community School are generally quiet this time of year unless you know when to stop by. For about 20 or so families in the community, every other Thursday is an important time to visit.
In a small area near the gymnasium, volunteers set up folding tables and set out a spread of groceries. As families arrive, children run ahead and enthusiastically check out the tables as they help pick up a two-week supply of food from the Shelburne Food Shelf.
The need in Shelburne is similar to other communities across Vermont once the school year ends. Local food shelves typically find increasing demand for their services, as many Vermont children who rely on free or reduced-price meals at school may fall short on balanced, healthy meals when school is out of session.
VtDigger.org recently reported that Vermont actually does better than most states at providing access to federally funded summer meals at parks, schools and campsites across the state. But advocates say plenty of children are still left out.
Last summer, 427,758 meals were served at 300 sites across the state, according to the Vermont Agency of Education.
The Food Research and Action Center, a national nonprofit dedicated to eradicating hunger, ranked Vermont second in the country in 2017 for participation in its summer meals program.
But Anore Horton, executive director at the nonprofit advocacy group Hunger Free Vermont, said that’s largely because everyone is failing to reach enough children. In 2017, according to The Food Research and Action Center, there were 27,224 Vermont students enrolled in free and reduced lunch program at schools. That summer, fewer than 8,000 children visited summer meal sites on any given day.
“That’s not good enough. By any stretch of the imagination,” Horton said.
She credits Vermont schools and community groups for establishing as many sites as they have, and says the problem is in large part federal policy. The USDA pays for the open meal sites, but only if they are located in communities with high enough concentrations of poverty – one way sites can qualify, for example, is if at least 50 percent of children in the local school districts are eligible for free and reduced lunch.
Hunger Free Vermont would like to see that threshold lowered to 40 percent, closer to the statewide average. It also would support families whose children receive free and reduced lunches to have access to summertime EBT cards to buy food themselves.
Running on local donations
Shelburne is one of the communities where the ratio of children in the school lunch program falls short of the 50 percent needed to qualify for government funding.
During the 2018-2019 school year, 113 of Shelburne Community School’s 743 students – 15.21 percent of the student population – were eligible for free or reduced-price school meals, according to co-principal Scott Sivo.
That’s just slightly more than the Champlain Valley School District, where just over 14 percent of students are eligible for free or reduced-price meals, said Bonnie Birdsall, CVSD Director of Digital Learning & Communication for the school district.
But food shelf volunteers say they are making the school-break food program work anyway.
Susan Stock, vice chair of the Shelburne Food Shelf, noted that there are 14 weeks of school vacation per year in Shelburne – summer vacation and break weeks during the school year. Food shelf donations are put to work to provide meal supplies for families who rely on the school lunch program in particular.
Because the food shelf’s space at 5420 Shelburne Road is too small to distribute food to a large number of people at once, Stock said it made sense to run the program out of Shelburne Community School.
“It’s a lot of food. It’s a set menu every week specifically for the people who have signed up,” said Sarah Powell, an attorney who volunteers regularly for the program. “It really is the equivalent of two meals a day per child.”
The food shelf board works with a nutritionist to make sure that the offerings are healthy and have enough protein to sustain active children over the summer, Stock explained.
Ahead of the Thursday summertime distribution, volunteers unbox food items and arrange them on the folding tables, allowing kids and their parents to “shop” for the grocery staples that appeal to them. Offerings on June 20 included canned tuna, spaghetti and meatballs and Mandarin oranges, along with fresh bell peppers and kiwis.
Donations down when demand is up
Another challenge summer presents is that donations drop.
“It’s summer, so [people] are off doing other things,” Stock said.
That means that the food shelf must rely on donations received throughout the year to fund its summer program.
The volunteers who organize the summer food effort say they know it makes a difference and they enjoy helping kids in the community.
“Even in an affluent town like Shelburne, there is still a lot of need and food insecurity,” said Susan Grimes, a volunteer with the summer program. “I’m really glad that we can help meet that.”
Grimes said she’s particularly aware of how important it is for children to have good nutrition year round.
“Being a dentist, I’m really aware of how nutrition affects overall health,” she said. “The food here has been overall healthy, with really good variety.”
Program organizers say another challenge is getting families in need to participate.
“Stigma is still there,” Stock said. “We’re pretty sure that there are a number of people [in Shelburne] that probably should be using the food shelf and aren’t.”
Shelburne’s “Food That’s In When School Is Out” program runs every other Thursday, 4-6 p.m., through August. Families may sign up by calling 802-622-3313 or emailing email@example.com. The food shelf only asks for one-time proof of Shelburne residency. No proof of need or income is required.
VTDigger.org contributed to this report. Community News Service is a collaboration with the University of Vermont’s Reporting & Documentary Storytelling program.