Manchester is home to a lot of kids, more than 13,600 if you use city school enrollment as a base.
Now with Independence Day behind us and the summer in full swing, it’s time to review our social checklist to make sure everything is in order for them.
Programs like soccer camp and swim lessons. Check.
Clean, safe city parks and pools. Check.
A summer reading program and new city bookmobile. Check, check.
Breakfast, lunch and dinner. Triple check.
That last category is particularly important in a city where nearly 60 percent of kids either get a free or low-cost lunch during the school year. Because hunger doesn’t wane — it only intensifies — during the summer, Southern New Hampshire Services (SNHS) does its best to hunt down a child with an empty stomach. It hires college students armed with coolers full of bagged lunches, ready to give them out to anyone who passes for 17 or younger.
Forty years ago this summer, the Summer Food Services Program started.
“They get a little picky sometimes, but they still eat it,” said Taylor Peno. A student at Thomas College in Maine, Peno is in her third year with the program.
She and Alex Guillemette, who just graduated from Manchester High School Central, claimed a shady spot outside the Hunt Memorial Pool/Adam Curtis Skateboard complex one early afternoon this week and passed out lunches. In about 20 minutes, they exhausted their supply of 50 meals, prompting a call to their Pine Street headquarters, which sent another 25.
This isn’t the only summer lunch program in the city. For example, the Boys and Girls Club feeds kids in its summer program, as does the city’s Fun in the Sun program.
SNHS concentrates on the kids who aren’t in a summer program, said Henry Harris, the organization’s community outreach director. That means teams like Peno and Guillemette show up at city parks and pools. They visit housing projects such as Elmwood Gardens and Kelley Falls, they show up at schools that hold summer school.
Later on in the summer, they visit football practices at the three high schools.
And any summer program that caters to kids — from the Safari Youth Club soccer to the Derryfield School Breakthrough Manchester programs — can sign up for free lunch deliveries. Crews visit some spots with breakfast and lunch.
In total, SNHS provides lunches at 40 locations throughout southern New Hampshire, including Derry, Portsmouth, Nashua and Seabrook.
They budget only $100,000 a year for the program. The money pays for wages, transportation and some food, although most of the food is free from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, Harris said.
For the kids, there’s no payment, no forms to fill out, no one hovering to make sure the half pint of milk is drained, the apple gnawed to its core.
“It’s great. We only do it once in awhile,” said Tammi Roberts as her daughter, Gabriella, contemplated whether she wanted another bite of Tuesday’s offering. “She’s not used to cold tacos.”
Roberts said they took the lunch because it was convenient, but normally she doesn’t. Some need it every day, and that’s what it’s there for, she said.
Breanna Violette, a 16-year-old Central student, took a lunch with her two friends. All were in wet swimsuits. Were they not at the pool, they’d either be at one or another’s house relaxing or walking around, she said.
Their parents are working, so they get breakfast and lunch at home sometimes, she said.
“Poverty’s different in America than the Third World; you don’t notice it as much,” Harris said. Starvation is not the issue; malnutrition is.
With that in mind, the program must follow USDA guidelines: whole wheat grains, low-fat milk, fresh vegetables and fruit. Several kids said they appreciate the healthy foods, which makes me wonder what’s happened to the kids of today.
Harris notes the guidelines are the same for the school lunch program, so the summer lunches are almost a carryover from the school year lunches.
Some food is avoided altogether. Several years ago, students started turning down anything with pork for religious reasons. Ham and bacon are now verboten.
Allergies prevent any peanut butter; the chefs use sunflower butter, which relies on sunflower seeds.
Finally, presentation is important. Thanks to our fast food culture, the lunches have to be packed in neat white bags, the sandwiches carefully wrapped, Harris said.
“The perception of many young people,” he said, “is if it’s not in a package, they won’t eat it.”