Kids eat for free

Island Grown Initiative looks back at its first summer lunch program, wondering how to reach more children.


A quilt of clouds covered the sky Tuesday afternoon. Beside the library in Oak Bluffs, Noli Taylor lays a yellow blanket over the gazebo railing, the words “Free Food For Kids” sewn from various cloths onto the blanket. Volunteers unfold tables, laying down tablecloths. Tortilla chips, salsa, cheese, carrots, celery, zucchini, orange juice, milk, and a red apple sit on the table. Two boys walk down the hill, pick up two white papers bags — they rode their bikes from Edgartown for lunch.

About 35 percent of children in Martha’s Vineyard public schools are eligible for free or reduced-cost lunches — nearly 600 kids. But over summer vacation, those families relying on the program are without a safety net. This summer, Island Grown Initiative launched a summer lunch program, and this week marked the end of the five-week pilot for the initiative.

“We’ve been thinking how can we support those kids, because kids who don’t have adequate nutrition in the summer come back to school less ready to learn,” said Noli Taylor, community food education director.

A federal program called Summer Food Service Program provides a level of reimbursement for every summer meal served to kids in either low-income neighborhoods or enrolled programs like the Boys and Girls Club. Oak Bluffs library fell within range close enough to one of the eligible neighborhoods on the Island. Several Island neighborhoods are eligible, but there’s a problem. Not all neighborhoods have a place approved by the government to distribute these lunches. The rules are really specific; the building needs to be pretty close. For example, the Tisbury School sits just out of range of an eligible neighborhood — it’s on the other side of the street.

“There’s elements of it we might want to do without the support of the federal program, just because we want to reach more kids,” said Ms. Taylor.

But Ms. Taylor says so far, so good. Kids are showing up, some even making friends. “One of the goals of the program is to have a social experience during lunchtime, especially kids who might end up home alone,” said Ms. Taylor.

Kids have to eat their lunch onsite as a part of the program. The boys on bikes opened their bags in the gazebo while Ms. Taylor and other volunteers chatted with them. Throughout the hour, families trickled in and out getting lunches, no questions asked. No proof of eligibility requirements, no paperwork — just a place for kids to come eat.

“There’s a couple kids I can think of who come on their own pretty consistently,” said Ms. Taylor.

Parents appreciate the time too — she watches families make new friends often.

She says volunteers are integral to the program, and they are a dedicated crew. This summer the program gathered over 100 volunteers, many coming from church groups, like Mardi Moran from St. Andrew’s — an organizer at the church and We Stand Together. She says volunteering and meeting the children has been a gift.

“The part that I find most frustrating is that there are people who really don’t think we have the problems that we do. And how to help them understand that is a challenge,” said Ms. Moran. “As tony a place as Martha’s Vineyard is, it’s hard to think there are these problems — I think that is the essential problem that we all are trying to figure out in the past year: How is it that we have such different perceptions of what’s going on in this country?”

Sometimes before she leaves, kids will give Ms. Moran a hug. Ms. Moran says some of the conversations she’s had with these kids are delightful — and some keep her up at night.

“I knew that there were people who were hungry, but I didn’t have a clue that it’s as big of a problem as it is,” said Alison Cohen. Ms. Cohen volunteers as a part of the Social Action Committee at the Hebrew Center.

“Every time the Obamas came on the TV, magazines and newspapers painted the Island as a playground for the ultra-rich, but maybe some of the ultra-rich aren’t aware,” she said. “The closer to the edge you live, the more difficult it is — and buying food on Island is pricey no matter where you shop, and that makes it even harder.”

Ms. Taylor takes in everything she can at the library, the Boys and Girls Club, and English Language Learners, trying to nail down why kids can come some days. At the end of each day she and her team take what they’ve learned, trying to be better for tomorrow.

She encourages anyone with ideas, suggestions, or struggles to reach out to her at at Island Grown Initiative.