Islanders discuss how to feed hungry kids in the summer

(From left to right) Julian Cyr, Noli Taylor, and Reverend Ken Campbell. Senator Cyr offered his help in the fight against food insecurity on Martha's Vineyard.

Community members met last Thursday at St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church in Edgartown to look at ways to address food insecurity for Island children during the summer. Representatives of Project Bread, a Boston-based organization that deals with issues of hunger in Massachusetts, discussed how Martha’s Vineyard could implement a Summer Food Service Program (SFSP) that would provide meals to children in need when they are out of school.

“Food should be a right, not a privilege,” Rachel Garside, child nutrition outreach coordinator for Project Bread, said during their meeting.

SFSP is a child nutrition program that reimburses providers who serve free meals during the summer to children under the age of 18. It is federally funded by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) and state-administered by the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE).

One in eight children in Massachusetts, roughly 229,000, wonder where their next meal is coming from, according to Ms. Garside. Project Bread feeds about 57,000 children in the summer with SFSP, which means that over 172,000 children continue to deal with food insecurity. That’s enough children to fill Gillette Stadium, TD Garden, and Fenway Park twice, with 10,000 children remaining.

Noli Taylor, program leader of Island Grown Schools and a local advocate of child nutrition, helped organize the meeting with Project Bread, with the goal of ensuring that all Island children have the food they need through the summer. Food insecurity among children in low-income households increases in the summer because they are not receiving school meals, and for many children, that’s linked to weight gain, summer learning loss, fatigue, and the development of unhealthy eating habits.

There are no summer programs in place currently on the Island, but there are more than 680 students — about 30 percent of all Vineyard students — eligible for free and reduced meals, according to data from DESE in 2015. Of those who qualified, 475 students participated. It’s these students who are most vulnerable to food insecurity in the summer months.

SFSP relies on sponsors to provide meals at designated sites, and they can be school districts, a government agency, a camp, a nonprofit organization, churches, or libraries.

To have a successful program, Ms. Garside recommended implementing SFSP, forming a coalition with community members, establishing a sponsor, and designating meal sites. She also suggested providing child- or teen-friendly programming to not only attract children to the site, but to remove the stigma that surrounds food insecurity.

Ms. Taylor said she was encouraged by the amount of community support and interest in the program. The next step, she said, will be to decide on a sponsor. Once that is determined, Ms. Taylor and others will need to decide on where the meals will be served. She told The Times on Monday that there were a lot of potential sites on the Island, and that they’re hoping for at least four.

“It feels very possible, like we’ll be able to pull it together this coming season,” Ms. Taylor said.