BENNINGTON -- Free breakfasts and lunches will be available to anyone in the region 18 and younger beginning July 9, and organizers say the service cannot come fast enough as there appears to be a higher demand than in previous summers.
Food service provider The Abbey Group, with Southwest Vermont Supervisory Union as the sponsor, is offering the meals weekdays until Aug. 3 at Pownal Elementary and in Bennington at Bennington Elementary and Molly Stark Elementary.
"We've definitely had more calls from parents, as well as these different groups expressing that their children need breakfast and lunch and asking where can they get it," said Stephanie Gates, assistant director of The Abbey Group. "I'm surprised by the number of parents."
Another sign of increased need, or maybe increased awareness, is that 25 different groups -- including summer camps, preschools, apartment complexes, and church groups -- have asked to receive the meals to distribute to children. Last year, Gates said, there were 16.
Although meals are not being distributed from every elementary school in the supervisory union, Gates said the meals are available to children no matter where they reside.
"It doesn't matter where you live. Anybody (18 or younger) is eligible for a free lunch and breakfast," she said.
Last summer, The Abbey Group gave way about 8,000 meals over 19 days -- ranging from 400 to 500 meals a day. This year, Gates believes the total may be closer to 600 meals a day.
"We're in a time of need. Everybody needs to eat and everybody needs to have help doing it. That's what we're here for -- trying to feed as many people as we can. We don't want anybody going hungry," Gates said.
The meals are provided at no cost to the families or the supervisory union because SVSU qualifies for federal reimbursement because of the area's poverty level.
The bag lunches include cold items such as a sandwich, fresh vegetables, yogurt, string cheese, fruit and milk. Breakfasts are generally cereal, a piece of fruit and milk.
Children in participating groups will receive food through those groups, although any child not involved in those activities may pick up breakfast and lunch at one of the schools. The child must be present to receive the meal. Families with children expecting to receive the meals at the schools are asked to call the schools in advance so enough food is made available.