Maine has expanded its summertime free-meal program for school-age children and is now providing the meals in every county for the first time in the history of the decades-old federal program.

There are now 307 summer meal sites in the state, up from 242 last summer, said Angela Wight, the Summer Food Service Program coordinator for the state Department of Education. Last year, Knox, Lincoln and Hancock counties didn’t provide any meals through the federal program, which was established in 1978 and provides meals to anyone younger than 19 years old.

“This is the first time we’ve had the summer food program in all the counties,” Wight said.

During the school year, more than 85,000 students get free or reduced-price breakfasts and lunches at school. Those same students would qualify for the summer meals.

Even though officials send notices home with students at the end of the school year, many parents say they don’t know the summer meal program is available, Wight said. Only 16 percent of the students who qualify for free and reduced-price meals during the school year use the summer program, she said.

“That hits families really hard, those two extra meals a day,” said Michelle Lamm, program manager for the Preble Street Maine Hunger Initiative, which supports several existing sites and helps educate and recruit volunteers to set up new meal sites.

“People are really trying to stretch their food dollars, and that’s hard to do in the summertime,” Lamm said.

Because of the low participation rate, Maine gets only a fraction of the funds available for the program. Maine currently receives about $1 million through the Summer Food Service Program, which provides $3.47 in reimbursement for every meal served. If all the Maine youths who qualified for the program participated, that payment would be about $11 million, according to a study in 2011 by the Maine Center for Economic Policy.

The expansion this summer is largely because of a concerted effort to get grant money to fund better outreach to families, and to solicit schools and nonprofit agencies to host new sites, Wight said. Any school with more than 50 percent of students qualifying for free meals can host a summer meal site.

Because transportation to the meal site isn’t provided and most children walk to the meal sites, Wight said she targeted high-poverty neighborhoods in underserved counties and towns, and sought out sponsors to host sites.

On Monday, U.S. Rep. Chellie Pingree will visit two new summer meal sites in the Portland area, one at Pearl Place at 184 Pearl St. in Portland and another at The Hamlet at 665 Saco St. in Westbrook. Pingree is married to S. Donald Sussman, majority share owner of the Portland Press Herald/Maine Sunday Telegram.

A new site in Portland also was established this summer at Portland’s Deering Oaks park. “I know parents love it,” said Jay Townsend, as he got ready to hand out free meals at Deering Oaks. “Some parents just can’t afford the extra meals” in the summertime, said Townsend, who works for the food services department in the Portland School District.

The Deering Oaks location is used heavily by nearby YMCA camp kids and children who play at the playground or the nearby wading pond. During a hot spell last month, Townsend said they handed out almost 40 meals in just one day.

At Reiche Community School in Portland on Wednesday, more than a dozen children were eating pizza, cheese sticks, graham crackers and oranges provided through the program.

That’s the goal, said Dawn Hilton, who also works with the district’s food services department.

“If they’re hungry, we want them to eat,” she said.

Noel K. Gallagher can be contacted at 791-6387 or at:

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