PAWTUCKET—As her classmates spun Hula Hoops and danced to a deejay, 11-year-old friends Nychelle Torres and Bobbie Walls sampled blueberries and pomegranates. “Blueberries are good with honey on them,” Torres stated. The two said they had also enjoyed making their own salsa out of a buffet table of different ingredients provided by Farm Fresh Rhode Island. “The salsa was good, except for some of the spicy tastes,” Torres added.
The food-themed fun fest at Vets Park on Friday was a kick-off event for the USDA Summer Food Service Program at Pawtucket public schools. U.S.D.A. Undersecretary Kevin Concannon was joined by U.S. Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, Rep. David Cicilline, and Mayor Donald Grebien, along with representatives from Sodexo, the district's school lunch provider, to spread the word that free meals are available daily to Pawtucket children during the summer months.
Solange Morrisette, general manager of Sodexo, said the purpose of the event was to spread the word to local children and their parents that free summer meals are available to anyone under age 18. While the city's school children who receive free or reduced lunches during the school year are covered, there are only about 10 percent who participate in the free summer lunch program.
There are currently 15 summer lunch sites available in Pawtucket. These include the Curvin-McCabe, Baldwin, Fallon, Varieur, Potter-Burns and Winters elementary schools and Jenks Junior High School. There are also meal sites at the Pawtucket Library, Galego Court, Prospect Heights, the John Street Playground, Payne Park Playground, Slater Park, and the newest location at Vets Park. A complete listing of summer meal sites throughout the state can be accessed by dialing 211, which is a hotline provided by the United Way, or on-line at SodexoRI.com.
Morrisette also noted that the summer lunch program emphasizes healthy eating and encouraging youngsters to make more nutritious food choices. Through partnerships with local vendors, such as Farm Fresh Rhode Island, meals throughout the summer will feature fresh, locally sourced fruits and vegetables as much as possible.
USDA Undersecretary Kevin Concannon said it is the mission of the USDA, in collaboration with local leaders, education officials, and other partners, to make sure families are aware of the resources available to them. He noted that in Rhode Island this year, there are 199 places for children to obtain the free lunches, ranging from schools, parks, pools, libraries and housing complexes to Boys & Girls Clubs.
Concannon stressed that the summer lunch program is already funded in the federal budget, and that Pawtucket's provider, Sodexo, is reimbursed on a per-meal basis. He said he hears it universally from teachers--that if a child is from a household where food has been uncertain over the summer months, the student gets off to a slow start in the fall. “This is the fuel,” he said, gesturing to the nearby food stations. “When you go back to school in the fall, you'll learn better from eating healthy and exercising,” he told the group of youngsters assembled.
Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse told the children, “We know that you get food in school. This program ensures that you can get healthy food in other places in the summertime. You help us get the message out,” he added.
Rep. David Cicilline noted how skipping a meal can make a person feel “angry and agitated” and how hunger has other effects on one's health. He added, “If you have a neighbor or friend who doesn't go to a meal site, make sure you tell them they can come here for a meal.”
Mayor Donald Grebien also urged the children to avail themselves of the free summer lunches and to try and make healthy food choices. He added that he had recently begun to pay attention to his own eating habits and had started taking daily walks each morning in an effort to be more fit.
Cindy Elder, director of communications with the Rhode Island Community Food Bank, noted the importance of the United Way's 211 hotline, because in addition to listing lunch sites, it can also provide information about other types of assistance, such as housing, medical and other social services.
Elder also said she wanted to get the word out that older teens are welcome to come by for the lunches, and they can bring friends. “We want more teens to come. They tend to think it is for younger kids,” said Elder. “Plus, many of them are studying in the summer and they need to succeed in school. We don't want them to be hungry.”