Bennington College to provide free summer meals

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BENNINGTON — Bennington College plans to provide free lunch to local children for three weeks this August, in an effort to bridge the gap between summer and school-year meal programs.

The college has partnered with Hunger Free Vermont, a South Burlington-based nonprofit, to provide lunches for children in Bennington from Aug. 5 to 23. Lunches will be available Monday through Friday from 11:30 a.m. to 1:30 at Willow Brook Apartments, Beech Court Apartments and the Bennington Early Childhood Center.

Susan Sgorbati, director of the Center for the Advancement of Public Action, Steve Bohrer, director of dining services, Ken Collamore, director of campus safety, and Heather Faley, director of human resources, are leading the effort.

The effort grew out of a conversation Sgorbati had with someone from Hunger Free Vermont, alerting her to the gap in free meal services between the summer and the start of school.

"In the month of August, they shut down," Sgorbati said of local free food service programs. "We found out that this month was a problem, and that there were children in Bennington who were in need."

The college has a responsibility to respond to the community, she said, referencing a $1 million grant the college received this year from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation to help address food insecurity in Bennington County.

Food insecurity is broadly defined as the household-level economic and social condition of limited or uncertain access to adequate food. Food insecurity affects 15 percent of children in the state under the age of 18, according to Hunger Free Vermont's website.

About 36,000 Vermont children are from households with incomes qualifying them for free or reduced-price school breakfast or lunch, according to Hunger Free Vermont. In the summer, 8,000 kids also participate in summer meal programs. The remaining 31,000 students who rely on school meals during the academic year might not get enough healthy food during the summer, causing them to fall behind their peers academically, according to Hunger Free Vermont.

After finding out about the problem through Hunger Free Vermont, Sgorbati went to Collamore and Bohrer to find a way to help.

"That's when I went to Ken and Steve and said, is there something that the college can do?" she said. "And they both were really willing to think about how we could step in."

Bohrer has primary responsibility for making the meals, Collamore for the transporting and distributing them.

Staff are also extremely excited to participate, Bohrer said.

"Understanding that there's a huge need within the community," he said. "They're all community members, and giving back and doing this sort of thing is really important to them. So they're absolutely thrilled to do that work."

The menu is a work in progress.

But, Bohrer said, he does plan for the meals to be wholesome, nutritious and from scratch, with things like fresh fruit, whole grains and whole milk.

"Everything pretty much that we currently do within our dining services," he said.

The menus will cycle, different each day — "with a few favorites," he said.

"Can't feed the mind until you feed the belly," Collamore said.

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Hunger Free Vermont recommended distributing meals at both the apartment sites, and Sgorbati said she received a request for meals to be distributed at the early childhood center.

Funds from the Mellon Foundation grant will not be used for this program; money for the program comes from Hunger Free Vermont, the college and Aramark, the college's food supplier.

The labor force for distributing the meals will be volunteer, predominantly staff, Collamore said.

"As an opportunity to give back to the community," he said.

Collamore said his staff has been "volunteering left and right" to help with the program. Some summer students may also participate, Collamore said.

"If our goal is to address food insecurity in Bennington — I'm calling this kind of `rapid response,'" Sgorbati said. "I don't think that's maybe a sustainable solution in the long run, but it's like the least we can do to maybe try to address these needs."

College officials plan to look at long-term strategies to address food insecurity in the community, Sgorbati said.

The first six months of the Mellon Foundation grant will be dedicated to gathering information on the issue, which the college is starting to do, particularly through a course Sgorbati plans to teach in the fall.

The course, "A Complex Systems Approach to Food Insecurity," will be offered yearly in the fall. It's open to the public.

Sgorbati said she wants students in that class to research best practices for addressing food insecurity in rural towns.

"That's going to kind of be the first part of what we'll be doing," she said. "Then I think we'll be starting to look at what our long-term solutions [are]."

Sgorbati said she isn't sure if this August program will be offered in future years.

"We have to review," she said. "First we have to see how it goes this year." And they also have to look at the total picture of food insecurity, she said.

The college is a big part of the community, and has a responsibility to it, Sgorbati said.

"And so, if there's something we can do, I think we're happy to do it," she said of this August program.

"It resonates with the institution, I think," Collamore said. Students are very interested in the topic of food insecurity as well, he said.

"Managing what I do, especially within a small community — I want to make sure everybody that we have here is fed," Bohrer said. "Looking out to the broader community of Bennington I think is important. It's our responsibility to do what we can."

Patricia LeBoeuf can be reached at pleboeuf@benningtonbanner.com, at @BAN_pleboeuf on Twitter and 802-447-7567, ext. 118.


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