BRATTLEBORO -- It was six or seven years ago when Tristam Johnson attended a presentation Hunger Free Vermont put on at the New England Youth Theatre. He said the presenting organization is dedicated to figuring out how to get food to children who qualify for free or reduced-price lunches when school is in session.
"What I discovered was there was nothing being done, during school vacations, for the kids that qualify for free or reduced," he told the Reformer. "So those families, which have minimal resources, probably don't have a lot in their fridge or in their cupboards during school vacations. So it just seemed like the right thing to do to provide a nutrition program during school vacations and that's what we did."
Johnson, a member of the Brattleboro Sunrise Rotary Club (one of two Brattleboro chapters of the international service organization), started a series of vacation lunch programs run by local housing communities during Christmas, winter and spring breaks, to ensure children have access to nutritious meals while on school vacation. The programs are held in the Ledgewood Heights, Moore Court and Westgate communities, operated by volunteers and partially funded through the Rotary Clubs, though the communities have taken it upon themselves to run the programs through community gardening and other sustainable means.
"It started with Rotarians making bagged lunches ... and it very quickly turned into, 'Here's the money. You go buy the food. You prepare it. But the only stipulation is you've got to make it as healthy as you can make it,'" Johnson told the Reformer during lunchtime at the Westgate Community Center on Thursday. Lunch starts each day at noon and is finished by 12:30 or 1 p.m. Johnson said there is a federal program that supplies meals for children during the summer.
Thursday was Taco Day at Westgate and the handful of children there chowed down on the fixings purchased at Hannaford.
Mother and daughter volunteers Julie and Falon Maloof, who live in Westgate, said the latter days of each vacation week typically brings few children because many of them are visiting family. Julie Maloof said this week saw as many as 16, while last year it was as high as 30. But Johnson said the Rotary Clubs don't have a target number and just want to focus on feeding children. He said the lunch programs are allotted about $250 week, but "I always get money back."
Falon Maloof said she got involved in the lunch program about four years, one year after she and her mother moved to Westgate.
"I like with working with kids and helping people out," she said. "I definitely think it provides healthier food, homemade food. And I think it gives the kids the opportunity of having homemade food."
Eleven-year-old DJ Ellison has been attending the Westgate program for about five years and his grandmother, Sharyn Sargent, volunteers there. Ellison said he enjoys being able to eat fresh food every day and he and his friends frequently hang out with members of the Boys & Girls Club of Brattleboro: Westgate Unit in the community center after lunchtime.
Julie Maloof said the program has enabled kids to learn about a lot of foods they would have otherwise tried. She said Wednesday's meal was pork tenderloin sandwiches and were a big hit -- though most of the kids were hesitant to even try it. She told the Reformer Friday was going to include a salad bar to accommodate those who choose to abstain from eating meat due to Lent.
Johnson said and the older Maloof also said the children thought up an idea of giving Westgate's senior citizens a menu to order from and delivering meals to the homebound. Though the programs were devised with children from low-income families in mind, he said the food is for everyone.
"Anyone who walks in here can have a meal," he said.
Domenic Poli can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, or 802-254-2311, ext. 277. You can follow him on Twitter @dpoli_reformer.