Program Keeps Thousands Of Kids Fed Over School Vacation
CHATHAM – Summer on Cape Cod is often synonymous with endless beach days, Americana band concerts, and lobster roll picnics. But, for many children, summer also brings uncertainty and hunger.
“The students who depend upon free and reduced school meals for more than half their daily calories during the school year are at risk for hunger during the summer months when schools are closed,” says Erin McAleer, president of Project Bread.
Based in East Boston, Project Bread is the leading statewide anti-hunger organization in Massachusetts and has been connecting at-risk families with community programs for 50 years. “In Massachusetts, we have more than 400,000 children and teens at risk for summer hunger,” notes McAleer. “On Cape Cod, 43 percent of school children are eligible for free or reduced school meals.”
For more than 20 years, Project Bread has been working with school and community groups to close the summer hunger gap through the federally-reimbursed Summer Food Service Program (SFSP). The program, known in Massachusetts as Summer Eats, is funded through the U.S. Department of Agriculture and is administered by the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education.
During the nine weeks of summer, Summer Eats provides free, nutritious meals to any child or youth 18 years old and younger. “Summer Eats gives families food security,” says McAleer, “We also see it as a preventative measure. The program helps to keep kids healthy. Kids are less susceptible to illnesses like diabetes and heart disease, and kids return to school healthy and ready to learn.” The free meals are offered by Summer Eats in conjunction with community activities and educational programming.
For Cape families, the local arm of Summer Eats is Food 4 Kids, an outreach ministry of the Church of the Holy Spirit in Orleans and the leading SFSP serving children and teens on the Lower and Outer Cape. Weekdays in the summer, the kitchen at the Church of the Holy Spirit is bustling with activity. Dedicated volunteers gather each weekday morning to prepare, pack, and distribute meals to meal sites across the Lower and Outer Cape. A small paid staff oversees and directs the operation.
“We have some of the most devoted volunteers on the planet,” says Food 4 Kids long-time volunteer and co-director Brenda Ridgeway. “Many of our volunteers are elderly and have experienced surgery, illness, or other setbacks during the winter. In spite of that, they refuse to quit. Some suffered food insecurity as children and don’t want our children to be without healthy meals.”
Last summer, Food 4 Kids served approximately 27,500 meals—breakfasts, lunches, and snacks—to children and teens across each of the eight towns comprising the Lower and Outer Cape. More than 75 volunteers made the feat possible, collectively logging more than 1,000 hours preparing and packing food and 6,000 miles driving to program sites.
This summer, Food 4 Kids will serve a total of 14 different groups of children in Provincetown, Truro, Wellfleet, Eastham, Orleans, Chatham, and Harwich. Free meals are served in conjunction with community programs at recreation centers, libraries, and camps. Food 4 Kids Founder Ruth Campbell notes that the location of the meal sites are by design.
“We are always thinking about where children will be in the summer and look for those places where we can reach as many children as possible,” says Campbell. A retired teacher, Campbell founded Food 4 Kids in the summer of 2013 after a second career in pediatric nutrition and after leading a summer food program in Western Massachusetts. “When we retired to the Cape, I could not believe that there wasn’t already a summer food program here. We secured a grant for a refrigerator and a freezer and set up operations in the Church of the Holy Spirit.”
For many, child hunger is an unexpected resident in an area known for its quintessential seaside landscapes and upscale homes. “Many young families on Cape Cod are struggling financially as the cost of living here is 30 percent higher than in other parts of Massachusetts,” says Ridgeway. “For many, jobs are seasonal, so parents must work two or three jobs during the summer months. As a result, many of them turn to the town recreation programs for childcare when their children aren’t in school.”
Campbell agrees that the Cape’s high cost of living is driving many young families into poverty. “The high cost of living here on the Cape is forcing many young families off-Cape,” she says. “The young families who stay are unfortunately falling into poverty.” According to Campbell, 49 percent of families in Chatham qualify for free or reduced school meals.
Removing the stigma associated with free meals was important to Food 4 Kids leadership. At Summer Eats sites, all children participating in activities receive a free meal. This means that not every child receiving meals packed by Food 4 Kids is needy, a practice that ensures disadvantaged children are never stigmatized.
“We know that many families would prefer not to participate in the free and reduced lunch program in the schools so that no one knows they might be struggling,” says Ridgeway. “One of the best caveats of the Summer Food Service Program is that everyone is served. We also know that there are families who are struggling to provide for their families but don’t qualify for assistance because Cape Cod uses the same guidelines as the rest of the state even though the cost of living is higher here on the Lower and Outer Cape. We hear that families are forced to make hard decisions about which bills to pay. As a result of Food 4 Kids, summertime is a little easier for all, even those who are just making it.”
Several grants enable Food 4 Kids to nourish the mind as well as the body. This summer, the organization will give away between 2,500 and 3,000 new children’s books at meal sites. Additionally, theater performers will put on plays at six of the sites. In addition to grants, Food 4 Kids also receives financial support from many local agencies including the United Way, Project Bread, the Church of the Holy Spirit, the Federated Church of Orleans, and Seaman’s Bank. Other perennial supporters include Cape Cod Five, St. Joan of Arc, the Dennis Union Church, Chatham Methodist Church, and many individual donors.
“It’s a community effort,” says Campbell. “My hope is that in reaching as many children as possible, we become a support network for local families. Children are building healthy habits today that truly last a lifetime.”
More information about Project Bread is available at www.projectbread.org. Information about
Food 4 Kids, including volunteer opportunities and a detailed schedule of local meal sites and programs. is available at www.food4kidscapecod.org.
Food 4 Kids Sites
Chatham Community Center
First Congregational Church of Chatham
Harwich Elementary School
Harwich Arts Center
Nauset Middle School
Orleans Elementary School Rec Program