In Berlin, some are scrambling to keep a free summer meals program alive for local students
Update, June 23: The New Hampshire Food Bank has stepped in to provide free summer meals to students in Berlin. Right now, the meals are being distributed at Community Field, but the Eagles Club has also offered kitchen space. Local volunteers who will help staff lunches attended a training session with the food bank on Tuesday night. Read more from the Berlin Sun.
For the past five summers, Jennifer Lazzaro has leaned on a local program to help keep her family fed. A single mom with a disability, who’s supporting her family on $1,500 per month, she was looking forward to getting some relief on her grocery bill as inflation pushes her other expenses higher.
But just last week, she learned there wouldn’t be a Berlin location offering the federally funded Summer Food Service Program, also known as the Summer Meals Program, this year.
“It just doesn’t feel right,” she said, “Especially to a community that's so poor. Kids rely on this.”
Berlin schools have one of the highest rates of low-income students eligible to participate in free and reduced lunch programs in New Hampshire. This school year, around 45 percent of Berlin students were eligible, according to data from the New Hampshire Department of Education.
But between administrative hurdles and a drop in federal support, no local agency took on the responsibility of running the program this year, leaving residents like Lazzaro uncertain where they’ll turn, with summer right around the corner.
For the past two summers, the Berlin school district has operated the free summer meal program.
While they could have applied to be a host location for the program again, Acting Superintendent Mike Kelley said the district didn’t have the money to operate it this summer.
“The reason we were able to do it in the pandemic was because of federal grants,” said Kelley, who is also the Berlin Middle High School principal.
During the height of the pandemic, Kelley said the district used federal COVID funding to pay kitchen staff and bus drivers who delivered food to families. Now, he said the school's remaining pandemic funds are already allocated for other projects, like improving the HVAC system at the middle high school.
More flexible pandemic-era rules for the Summer Meals Program also ended this summer, which meant the school would not have been reimbursed for giving out food to kids who weren’t income eligible, as they had been the previous two summers.
Kelley said the school is still planning to provide some free lunches later this summer to children who participated in its after school program.
Prior to the pandemic, the program was run by the small Berlin Recreation & Parks department. But this year, that two-person department also lacked the capacity to keep it going.
“It has nothing to do with whether I wanted to do it or not,” said Duane Johnson, the recreation director. “It was because … I guess you could call it logistics.”
Johnson is new to the job and had no previous experience running the Summer Meals Program.
Initially, he was waiting to see if the school would operate it again. By the time he learned they weren’t, jumping through administrative hurdles — like training temporary summer program staff and ensuring food safety, all while he was preparing for his summer day camp — didn’t feel realistic.
“There was so much going on,” he said. “But it was my decision. I will take ownership of that.”
As someone who takes pride in supporting kids in his community, it’s a decision that weighs heavily on him, and one Johnson hopes he’ll never have to make again.
“I’m already looking at, how can we do this in the future?” he said.
With no local agency operating the Summer Meals Program this year, a few Berlin residents are trying to run a version of the program for kids themselves.
Lori Korzen is spearheading the effort. She volunteers regularly with the New Hampshire Food Bank's mobile pantry in Gorham and has been trying to use that connection to secure food.
But she’s running into other logistical hurdles as she tries to find locations to host the lunches. One local church told her they are willing to offer their space, but they’d first want some sort of liability insurance.
“So we are hitting roadblocks,” she said, “which is scary because school ends at the end of the week.”
But Korzen, a former emergency medical technician for the Gorham Fire Department, isn’t easily deterred. She’s already found someone who will pay for food every Monday, and she and her husband can fund another day each week. She’s also been recruiting volunteers on Facebook to staff the ad-hoc operation.
“I see this as a time for the community to rise up,” she said.