MANCHESTER — Kids, some shirtless and barefoot, converged by the two industrial-sized white coolers parked on the grass outside Hunt Memorial Pool on a cloudy afternoon.
Inside the chests were chilled treasures: free brown-bag lunches, compliments of the federal government.
Zack and Adam, Kyle and Courtney each grabbed a bag on a recent Thursday and then unwrapped the offerings: yogurt, stick of cheese, grapes, graham crackers, milk, as well as carrots or sweet peas.
Teenager James Bachand said the free lunches help stretch the family groceries until the next food stamps arrive eight days later.
"Some kids don't have food at home," said Bachand, sitting on the grass enjoying yogurt. Bachand came for each of the first four days and said he doesn't know what he would be eating otherwise.
Southern New Hampshire Services, a social service agency, distributes free meals at 25 sites spread among Manchester, Nashua and Derry. Workers gave out 2,306 meals at Manchester's 15 sites during the first four days they were opened, 459 meals at Nashua's seven sites over the first five days and 42 meals at Derry's three sites over the first four days.
Meal sites are selected based on a nearby school having at least 50 percent of their students eligible for free or reduced school lunches during the school year, Devlin said.
No site hands out more lunches than the one outside the Maple Street pool, less than a block from Beech Street Elementary School, where 96.89 percent of students were eligible, according to Kathleen Devlin, community health and nutrition services director for SNHS.
"This is one of the highest food-insecurity locations in the state" in terms of children having an uncertain availablility of nutritionally adequate and safe food, Devlin said.
During the kickoff week in Manchester last week, workers gave out 190 meals at Hunt Memorial Pool on Monday, 187 on Tuesday, 140 on a rainy Wednesday and 108 on Thursday.
Looking at a single day — last Thursday — workers distributed 670 total meals: 125 breakfasts, 376 lunches and 169 suppers among the three communities.The program runs Mondays through Fridays, from the first day after school lets out until the last day before school starts, except for July 4 and 5. No questions are asked of the children, who must be no older than 18 and must eat the food at the distribution site.The federal government reimburses her agency $1.98 for each breakfast and $3.47 for each lunch or supper served. The Hunt pool site financially "floats all the other sites, which have very low numbers," Devlin said. Some sites offer more than one meal a day.
The U.S. farm bill before Congress affects those on Maple Street since the U.S. Department of Agriculture overseas the food stamp program. When Southern New Hampshire Services administered the meals program to four counties during previous summers, it served 57,000 meals in 2011 and 42,000 meals last year, according to Devlin. She thinks fewer people show up when more people use food stamps.
That's "good because those families are less food insecure," Devlin said.
Teenager Corey Holmes ranked the yogurt tops so far, better than the tuna sandwich doled out the day before. If not for the summer free-lunch program, Holmes said he would be eating less-nutritional pasta at home.
"It's nice that they're helping people," he said.
Some kids double-dip at lunchtime.
"My kids eat at home, and then they come here," Vicki-Jo Gabaree said of her three teenagers. "My kids are piggies."
She thinks the program is a good idea and noticed those eating are "a lot of little kids mainly."
Only a handful of adults accompanied the kids, many of whom are daily diners and swimmers at the city pool. "I wish we'd see more parents," Devlin said.
Gabaree said she thought taxpayer money was well spent on the community children.
"It gets them off the streets, so they don't get into trobule," said Gabaree, whose family makes the 10-minute walk from home for lunch.
Marie Emmons waited with her sons, Adam, 9, and Zack, 12, who have come each day so far."It's good for the kids, especially the low-income families," she said. "It helps us save money, compared to spending $30 at McDonald's, instead coming here for a meal for free pretty much."