As dozens of students walked into Lincoln Elementary Tuesday, they were greeted by Congressman David Trone and local chef Bryan Voltaggio, who had rolled up their sleeves and donned aprons to serve them lunch.
On the menu were baked chicken, corn, carrots, watermelon, applesauce and dinner rolls.
The more than 70 children filled the cafeteria as part of the county’s free summer meals program, which provides two meals a day at eight schools to children 18 and younger.
“To see the children come in hungry ... and then to see the energy levels go up after we fed them, it’s amazing for me to see,” said Voltaggio, who co-owns Volt and Family Meal in Frederick.
Trone (D-Md.) visited the school as part of a “summer meals tour.” Frederick was his second stop for the day. Trone said he wanted to come to the district to see the program in action and receive feedback on what is and isn’t working.
The summer meals program offered through Frederick County Public Schools is part of a larger Summer Food Service Program administered by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
Created in 1968, the program aims to provide teens and younger children in low-income areas with free meals when school is not in session.
Robert Kelly, senior manager of food and nutrition services at FCPS, said many children who take advantage of the free summer meals also qualify for free and reduced-price meals during the school year.
According to Kelly, 10,698 FCPS students qualified for free and reduced-price meals in the 2018-19 school year. Lincoln Elementary had 421 of those students.
“Without this ... a lot of families would struggle to feed their kids during summertime,” Kelly said.
“To have a program that can ensure that our kids are getting breakfast and lunch throughout the week is wonderful,” Lincoln Elementary Principal Eric Rhodes said.
Four days a week, children can get breakfast and lunch at one of nine sites across the county. According to Kelly, breakfast normally consists of a variety of muffins, cereals and breakfast bars. Lunch is always a hot meal and offers different items each day such as cheeseburgers, pizza and chicken tenders, along with a vegetable and fruit.
“We choose popular items to entice kids to eat everything,” Kelly said.
And even if they don’t end up eating everything, each child must take a full tray of food.
According to Kelly, the sites record how many meals are served each day, and at the end of the summer, that data is submitted to the state, which reimburses the school system in full for the meals.
Kelly said that 34,698 free meals were served in 2018.
Marlena Wiley brought her nephew Ja’mere Macklin to Lincoln Elementary on Tuesday afternoon. Wiley, who is Macklin’s legal guardian and on disability leave, said it’s a great program for families that don’t have a lot of extra money to spare.
“Children who are sort of underprivileged, they may not be eating, and with this, you get a whole meal,” Wiley said. “For people who don’t have a lot of funds, it’s a lifesaver.”
Ja’mere attends Spring Ridge Elementary School, but lives near Lincoln and, according to Kelly, one of the great things about the program is that children don’t need to be a student of that particular school or FCPS in general. They just need to be hungry.
“There’s no barriers. It’s for all children,” Kelly said.
Trone said one of the biggest challenges he sees moving forward is getting meals to kids who can’t get to the sites due to either lack of transportation or because they live in a more rural area.
He said he hopes to initiate a Meals on Wheels-type program and identify zones where there are students who should be taking advantage of the program but aren’t.
Voltaggio echoed the congressman’s concern.
“Nutrition can’t stop when the last school bell rings. ... There needs to be more programs, especially in the hard-to-reach rural areas,” he said.
Trone also hopes to secure more federal funding for the program.
“If we spend money upfront, and the kids have the right food for breakfast and lunch, they’re going to be successful in their education. If they’re successful in education, they’ll get a good job and career,” Trone said.
For 8-year-old Ja’mere, however, the long-term impact of his lunch was not even a pinprick of a thought. He was enjoying his applesauce and excited to go to the library with his aunt afterward. He said he liked the food.
“And it’s free,” he exclaimed.
“Yes, it’s free,” Wiley agreed. “And free is always fun.”