The atmosphere was decidedly carnival-like at Milton Elementary & Middle School last Friday as the district kicked off its free summer meals program.

This is the sixth year the school has served up free, nutritious meals, made possible by a federal grant. According to food service director Steve Marinelli, Milton’s five meal sites have grown every year.

“People look forward to it. It’s something that’s on their radar and on their calendars, and it’s so interesting to see how the school and the community are becoming more united as one,” he said. “It just helps support our programs and what we do.”

The sunny day provided the perfect backdrop for the annual barbecue with burgers, hot dogs, fruit salad, potato salad and more. Kids of all ages bounded across the front lawn with snow cones, sporting facepaint and temporary airbrushed tattoos.

There was also a waterslide, inflatable obstacle course and bouncy castle, plus information tables about exercise and nutrition.

Rebecca Mitchell, child nutrition initiatives specialist with Hunger Free Vermont, was also in attendance. The nonprofit partners with Milton and the state’s 300 other mealsites to promote healthy eating in a time when some parents struggle to provide consistent meals.

“The summer months are the most vulnerable time for kids and low-income families. It really stretches their budgets economically,” Mitchell said. “[Summer programs provide] the nutrients they need to grow and succeed and thrive. It gets them out and socializing with their peers.”

Vermont has the nation’s second-highest participation rate in summer meal sites, but visits dropped 13 percent from 2016-17, Hunger Free Vermont data shows. The organization attributes this to budgets cuts to enrichment programs and challenges with finding site locations and logistics of managing them.

However, 90 percent of Vermont’s programs formed five years ago are still operating, it reports.

Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) planned on attending but got pulled into another engagement, outreach representative Erica Campbell said. She provided the Independent with the senator’s comments.

“No child in our state should ever go hungry,” Sanders’ talking points said. “We live in the richest country in history, and it pains me to even have to say that.”

Children without adequate nutrition can’t succeed, Sanders said, noting his support of providing healthy meals all year long.

“Schools may take a summer break, but hunger unfortunately does not,” his comments say.

Mitchell said kick-off events like Milton’s help de-stigmatize the free meals, which are often served at summer camps, libraries and recreation programs. The meals are available to any child 18 or under, regardless of their economic status.

“It’s for everyone,” she said. “The more kids who can participate, the better it is and the stronger these programs become.”

Milton will see a slight dip in its reach this summer since one of its clients, the town of Colchester, started its own summer meals service. Milton’s program will run a creemee stand this summer to help close the revenue gap, he said.

Marinelli estimates Milton will serve up to 400 meals a day by the first week of July. And he looks forward to continued growth: This summer, the district will begin building a community garden where folks can plant and harvest their own plot. The produce will be planted next year, he said, and will coincide with the schools’ new outdoor classroom.

For now, Marinelli is excited about summer meals and thinks last Friday’s sizeable attendance shows the community is, too.

“It’s great to be a community member in Milton,” he said.

Photos by Courtney Lamdin, Milton Independent.