The Colchester School District will start serving free lunchtime meals to all school-aged children during summer vacation regardless of their family income level or town of residence.

Meals will be served at Colchester Middle School from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m., Monday through Friday, from June 25 until August 17 on a first come, first serve basis.

“Any child that’s of school age can come to the middle school,” district food service director Steve Davis said. “It doesn’t matter if they’re from Arkansas, Alabama or Colchester.”

Colchester earned the open meals site designation thanks to a little help from Hunger Free Vermont and a fresh look at some U.S. Census data, Davis said. The moniker comes with federal funding and Davis said he hopes the program will at least break even, if not earn a few dollars for the district.

About 200 participants will come from Colchester Parks and Recreation summer camps, Davis said. Those campers previously were served meals through the Milton summer meal program, he said, but the lunch was only free to kids who met certain income qualifications.

If enough people participate, Davis hopes to eventually expand the program to breakfast and dinner. In the meantime, though, he said the program will help combat a problem he and his staff have been seeing for years.

“Lower income, impoverished families have kids eating through the school year, but then the summer comes along and they’re hungry,” Davis said. “There are kids going hungry.”

A report prepared by the district details current poverty rates in each of the five Colchester schools. Union Memorial School has the highest poverty rate at 38 percent, while Colchester High School falls on the lower end with 25 percent, according to the presentation.

Superintendent Amy Minor

And at an August school board meeting, superintendent Amy Minor said 461 CSD students qualified for free lunch and 134 qualified for a reduced lunch price, totaling about 30 percent of the student population.

In 2017, the Food Research and Action Center ranked Vermont third in serving kids summer meals with an average daily participation of 9,041. That was up 3 percent from 2015.

The Colchester summer lunch will be similar to that served during the normal school day, albeit with slightly pared back options. There will be a strong emphasis on fruits, vegetables and whole grains, Davis said. Adults can purchase a meal for $4.50.

The program will also give the district a chance to make better use of their multiple school gardens, which to date have produced a bounty of fruits and vegetables when school is no longer in session, Davis said.

He will also be able to retain two or three food service staff through the summer. Those employees have long expressed interest in year-round work, making the program a win-win for Davis’ department.

“It’s just really important that people don’t think twice about coming and taking advantage of it,” Davis said. “It’s really important that kids get a nutritious meal — not only kids that are hungry, but all kids.”