For the last four summers, Tim Crider has driven a bus route throughout several Bangor neighborhoods around lunchtime for the Bangor Housing Authority.

On a recent muggy Monday, Crider drove out of the housing authority’s Community Center parking lot and headed off to the Capehart neighborhood. Children in that area of the Bangor School District attend Downeast Elementary School, where 92 percent of the children qualify for free and reduced lunch during the school year. During the summer though, when school isn’t in session, there is no school lunch to be had.

He slowed down at designated stops throughout the neighborhood, looking for the familiar faces of children he’s picked up weekly over the summers.

With no takers at the first stop, he rolled onto the next.

Two girls stepped into the cool, air-conditioned bus and gave a volunteer their names. “Where’s everybody else,” Crider asked.

The girls told him that their neighbors wouldn’t make it today, they were off somewhere with their mother. As Crider once again rolled onto the next stop, the two young passengers looked out the big windows sitting silently for the remainder of the ride to the Community Center. The two girls would be the only passengers Crider picked up in Capehart for lunch that day.

Once inside the center’s gymnasium, their silence broke as they ran towards the basketball court, joining in the laughter of the other children playing a very unorganized ― yet giddy ― pick up game. Other children are either brought to the center by parents or babysitters.

This could be the scene at camps across the country, and for these kids, that’s what this one-hour activity feels like every day.

But this isn’t summer camp. This is a federally reimbursed summer lunch program.

At exactly noon the kids line up and are given a bagged lunch by housing authority volunteers. They’ll eat their lunch on site. Once finished, they can join the activities being offered, such as board games or crafts, before boarding the bus again around 1 p.m. to be brought back home.

For the kids, this hour is an opportunity to have fun with friends. But for the organizers, this hour provides the children with a nutritious meal they might not otherwise be able to get during the summer months.

“There are a lot of kids out here who don’t get that extra meal a day,” Christal Curtis, a Capehart resident and volunteer for the summer food program, said. “[At the program] kids know they’re getting that one nutritious meal, but what they’re thinking is ‘Oh, we get to have fun too.’”

On that Monday, breakfast for lunch was being served. The lunch consisted of cereal with milk, yogurt, celery with sunbutter and an apple. Curtis, whose own children utilize the summer lunch program, said the opportunity for area kids to receive fresh fruits and vegetables is a boon.

“It helps the parents out here, because half of them can’t afford fresh fruits and veggies,” Curtis said.

But the Summer Food program has worked to make these sites more than just food. Everyday, each site has an enrichment activity to get the kids active, mentally and physically. While the activity and lunches only last for an hour each day, it helps to keep the summer life of kids who might not attend camp a holistic experience. This approach also helps prevent “summer slide,” where children might lose what they learned the previous school year by not being stimulated throughout the summer.

“[The program is] very encompassing of everything. It’s important for youth to get enough sleep, to have food and good diet and good exercise. It’s such a well rounded program. If [the children are] not having access to those things then we’re missing out on something,” said Renee Butler, Summer Food Program coordinator for Bangor Housing Authority.

Serving a critical need

The summer food site at the Bangor Housing Authority is one of eight sites in the Bangor and Brewer area this summer that operates Monday through Friday from late June through August, serving about 250 children. When an additional Bangor site is offered for one week in late June at the Rock Church, the number of children that the Bangor program serves jumps to about 400. This site is offered when the Rock Church offers their summer program.

The Bangor sites are all a part of the United State Department of Agriculture’s Summer Food Service Program, which provides children 18 and under with free lunch ― and in some cases breakfast ― during the summer.

Statewide, 45 percent of students in public school qualify to received free and reduced lunches, according to the most recent Maine Department of Education statistics. In Bangor, this average is slightly higher, with 51 percent of students qualifying. But at Downeast Elementary School, which is located in the Capehart neighborhood, 92 percent of the students qualify to receive free and reduced lunch.

So what happens when school is out for summer? Well, sometimes the kids simply don’t eat.

“We know there is a huge number of children in Maine who need nutritious meals,” Clara Whitney, director of public affairs for Good Shepherd Food Bank, said. “So if they don’t get [school lunches] in the summer they are literally going without. There is not enough food in the home for them to have enough food and have a nutritious, balanced diet. These programs are critical.”

With Maine ranking first in New England in terms of food insecurity, one in five children in the state are food insecure, meaning that they do not have reliable access to nutritious food. This insecurity is amplified in the summer, when instead of just having to come up with the resources to provide children with dinner, breakfast and lunch are now needs that have to be met by parents.

For some people, this is just not possible, Whitney said. What this means is that kids either don’t get the extra meal, eat a meal that lacks nutritional value or their families can rely on food pantries and summer meal programs.

“Kids need nutritious food to keep them healthy, and to learn and grow,” Whitney said. “During the year, kids are going to school every single day so it’s easier to serve nutritious meals to kids who need it because you have them there at school. In the summer children are just more dispersed, they’re not always attending some sort of a program.”

Providing a meal and a memory

While the Summer Food program receives reimbursement from the USDA, the individual sites are run by an array of sponsors and community organizers. The programs in Bangor are run by the Bangor Housing Authority and sponsored by the Good Shepherd Food Bank. In 2016, across the state, 119 sponsors organized a total of 410 summer food program sites, according to the Maine Department of Education.

Organizations involved at the local level range from the school districts themselves to churches to nonprofit organizations like Good Shepherd. Throughout this network of sites, last summer a total of 12,182 meals were provided daily for a total of approximately 753,000 meals served over the course of the summer.

“Every year we continue to see an increase in the number of sites,” Walter Beesley, Director of Child Nutrition at the Maine Department of Education said.

The summer food sites in Bangor were established seven years ago by the Good Shepherd Food Bank. For the last four years the Bangor program has been run through the Bangor Housing Authority.

The sites serve a different meal Monday through Friday that meets USDA nutrition standards and the menu is repeated throughout the summer. Different organizations prepare the meals that are delivered to the respective site. For the Bangor program, the cafeteria staff at Bangor High School starts as early as 5 a.m. on weekdays throughout the summer to make sure that each of the city’s sites has enough meals for the children.

The enrichment activities also change daily, with athletic activities being offered some days and educational activities being offered others. Whitney said having these activities in addition to the meals being offered is important for the success of students.

“This program in a lot of way contributes to the education of the kids, especially if they’re not only coming for these healthy meals but for enrichment as well,” Whitney said.

Room to grow

The summer food programs in Maine have made serious strides in recent years, with 2014 marking the first year that every county had at least one summer lunch site, and the number of sites has grown from there, Beesley said.

But with Maine’s rural nature, there are still barriers to getting children to these sites to receive the nutritious food available ― transportation chief among them.

While some programs in the state, such as Bangor, offer transportation via bus, this is not the case across the state. If a parent or guardian is not available to bring the child to the site, or does not have reliable means of transportation to do so, the meals being available ― for some kids ― is a mute point.

“When you have kids in more rural areas, where they are a couple miles from the school or down a dirt road, it’s really difficult to get them to the site,” Whitney said.

Adriane Ackroyd, the Maine Department of Education coordinator for the Summer Food Program, said some programs are getting creative when it comes to addressing this issue. In Augusta, for instance, the program utilizes a box truck to bring the meals to various stops around the city to meet the needs of as many children as possible. Since it is against federal regulation for the lunches provided to be taken off site for food safety concerns, the Augusta mobile sites set up shop at parks and other community meeting places for fifteen minutes at a time before rolling onto the next stop.

The Department of Education is also always looking to expand the number of food sites available during the summer. Planning for the summer begins in February, when the department does outreach to the communities about who will be sponsoring the sites and where they will be. There are areas in the state where the department is trying to expand the program, such as Oxford and Piscatiquis counties, where Ackroyd said they’re looking for community sponsors.

If you feel that your community could benefit from another summer food site, the best thing to do would be to reach out to the Department of Education, Whitney said, because they are always looking for localized partners to make these sites work.

However, even though numerous sites might be available in a community, one of the biggest challenges, Beesley said, is making people aware that this service is available to anyone who needs it. There will always be children who aren’t getting enough nutritious food, so spreading the word about the program is the biggest goal presently.

“There is always going to be a need to grow. There is always going to be youth out there that are not having access to nutritious foods and not having access to activities over the summer that stimulate their minds and their bodies,” Butler said. “The biggest thing is to constantly work on building the program, to get the word out and be able to serve as many families as we possibly can.”