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Seniors And Kids Share Free Lunch in Gilman

VPR/Charlotte Albright

The problem of summer hunger is a vexing one for kids who rely on free school lunch program during the school year. One in five Vermont children are frequently hungry because their parents cannot afford enough food. At the same time, advocates say elderly Vermonters can also suffer from poor nutrition for lack of resources.

At  about eleven o’clock on a hot weekday morning at the senior center in Gilman, the town’s older citizens took their seats at long tables with colorful  tablecloths and napkins, and waited for today’s free hot lunch. Suddenly, much shorter, younger diners started to arrive.

This is the only summer lunch program in Vermont where senior citizens and children eat together. And on this day, kids helped with cooking –or at least cutting fruit—for their elders.

Nine-year old Desiree Mendez wore  a pink party dress as she carefully sliced through kiwi and cantaloupe. Desiree comes here just about every day for lunch, instead of eating at home. “Because it’s a good thing to do for the seniors,” she said.

Desiree might get Ramen noodles at home—and that’s fine, she says--but here they will feast on American Chop Suey, green salad, fruit salad, garlic bread, peach bars, and warm apple crisp.

Desiree, her six-year-old brother Raul, and their three-year old friend Banyon think they are, “good company for the old folks,” as Desiree puts it.  The senior seem to agree: Josephine Ball and her friend Jay Messer have found a fellow baseball fan among the kids here.

“And he has a little Red Sox shirt on and he has Pedroia on the back of his shirt,  so we told him he had to talk to Pedroia because they were losing at the time, you know,” Ball recalled.

“And he said, ‘I don’t even know this guy.’ He’s just a little fellow, three, four, five, years old.”

For 84-year-old Messer, eating lunch with children is a high point of the day. “They are uplifting, very much so because you know there’s nothing more invigorating…to have children around when you’re doing something, even something like this, and particularly for us seniors--we enjoy the kids immensely,” Messer said. Messer comes just about every day, because it’s his job to say the prayer before lunch.

The kids knew enough to quiet down, but the room perked  right back up as they passed around the food. 

The hungry young diners actually improve the bottom line for this federally funded senior center, because government subsidy is based on the number of people—and meals—served here.  On this day, the cooks are hustling for a bigger crowd than usual—about 25 adults and 15 kids fill every seat. The population of Gilman is about 260— and it’s one of the poorest communities in the state. Joanne Belair is a Senior Center volunteer.

“They are getting good healthy food. And to see little ones eating broccoli and asking for more fish is amazing,” Belair said.

Ed Wheelock chairs the Board of the Senior Center. He says there was some concern, at first, that the seniors would be forced into babysitting rambunctious latchkey kids.  But those worries, he said, were unfounded.

“These kids have been extremely polite and respectful, I cannot say that enough, the parents that come in here that I have seen personally, have been very nice, they bring the kids over to empty the plates when they are done, show them how—I am impressed, I am totally impressed with this program.”

Last year, about 6,800 low-income children received summer meals on an average day in July, but according to Hunger Free Vermont, summer meals still only reach about one in five of children who rely on regular meals during the school year.

Officials with Hunger Free Vermont, Head Start, and the Department of Education hope this program that brings seniors and kids together for free meals will be copied in other communities throughout Vermont.

Charlotte Albright lives in Lyndonville and currently works in the Office of Communication at Dartmouth College. She was a VPR reporter from 2012 - 2015, covering the Upper Valley and the Northeast Kingdom. Prior to that she freelanced for VPR for several years.
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