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‘Much more than just free lunch’: summer-meal programs begin 

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REGION — Schools have just let out for summer vacation, yet many are keeping their doors open to continue serving meals.

Summer can be a season of financial strain on families. Chief among parents’ struggles is feeding their children meals that are provided in school during the rest of the year. Summer camps are usually too expensive, and alternatives and benefits like the supplemental nutritional assistance program (SNAP) only go so far. According to the Food Research and Action Center’s 2016 report, only one in seven children who receive free or reduced lunch during the school year receive meals during the summer time as well. In an effort to curb this problem at a local level, for the third year, The Cooperage Project is working with Wayne Highlands School District to host Kids Lunch Party, a program that provides children with free summer meals while offering social and entertainment opportunities.

Ryne Spaulding, food service director at Wayne Highlands, said The Cooperage seemed like a natural fit when the district was looking to add a downtown site.

“Being a resident of Honesdale, The Cooperage came to my mind because all of the great things they do in the community,” he said in an email.

The Cooperage’s director Ryanne Jennings said she wanted to make the program “much more than just a free lunch.”

“We really wanted to make it an environment that was battling the stigma that goes along with needing a free lunch,” she said. “Any parent that has small children can certainly use some support.”

Jennings said part of creating this judgment-free environment is having the program accessible to as many people as possible. There are no income requirements and children from any area, not just Wayne County, can take part in the program.

“Any child can come in… if they appear to be 18 or under, they get a free meal, so there are absolutely no questions asked.” She also said that this brings in a mix of people from different socioeconomic backgrounds, so no one has to feel singled out by attending.

All of the other sites involved in the Wayne Highlands free breakfast and lunch program—including Honesdale High School, Lakeside Elementary and Stourbridge Primary—are also open to anyone under 18 years of age. In 2016, over half of the student population in two of its buildings qualified for free or reduced school lunch, making the district eligible, through the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) Summer Food Service Program, to be an open site. The county will soon be up for evaluation to determine if it still qualifies to offer open sites, Spaulding said.  

The Cooperage’s “more than just lunch” mantra is backed by live entertainment. Activities vary from day to day, including live music, arts and crafts, guest speakers and chess day—which is perhaps the most popular. Jennings also mentioned that there are always donated books and magazines for children to read.

Arrah Fisher, program manager at The Cooperage, said that parents and children both look forward to the lunch parties for the chance to socialize with friends and have experiences they couldn’t get at home.

“It really breaks up the monotony of the summer months,” Fisher said.

Fisher and Jennings also encourage anyone interested in helping to consider donating or volunteering. 

The Summer Food Service Program is federally funded and state administered, so there are sites throughout both PA and NY for parents to take their kids for free breakfast and lunch during summer.

Wayne Highlands will continue serving free meals on weekdays until early August.

Wallenpaupack Area School District just recently started its Free Kids’ Picnic in Hawley’s Bigham Park. This site is also open to anybody under 18.

Monticello and Fallsburg central school districts will also be offering free meals to all children at various sites throughout Sullivan County until mid-August.

Parents can call 866/348-6479, text “FOOD” to 877-877 or visit www.fns.usda.gov/summerfoodrocks to find out where the nearest summer meals site is.

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