WATERVILLE — When children enter school in the fall, it is important they come ready, both physically and mentally.

That is why the federally funded Summer Food Service Program, which provides free breakfast, lunch and snacks to children all over the state, is so important, program organizers said Monday.

“It’s one of our foundation programs in combating hunger because it reaches children at a vulnerable time, in the summer when school cafeterias are closed,” said Jan Kallio, of the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Kallio, of the USDA’s northeast region office in Boston, was at Waterville’s North Street Playground Monday to help kick off the summer meals program in Alternative Organizational Structure 92, which also includes Winslow and Vassalboro.

The district offers free breakfast, lunch and snacks five days a week to children 18 and younger at 15 sites in the three communities. Fresh fruits and vegetables are emphasized. The program has 118 sponsors for 360 sites statewide, and children anywhere in the state may eat in any community they happen to be in on any particular day.

More than 60 children, their parents and school and state officials turned out Monday to celebrate the program with a barbecue, music and speeches at the playground. The program is a key to preventing and responding to hunger on a basic level, but also with helping to ensure children are well-nourished so they can grow and develop throughout the summer, according to Kallio, USDA’s team lead program specialist in the food and nutrition service.

Jamie Curley, summer food service program outreach director for the Maine Department of Education’s child nutrition program, said 85,000 children in Maine qualify for free and reduced lunch, and the summer meals program plays an important part in making sure children eat healthful meals.

“It’s not just for those kids that qualify,” she said. “It’s for everyone. One of the biggest barriers to the program is that people just don’t know about it.”

Paula Pooler, AOS finance director and food services director, and Barbara Bonnell, food services food quality control supervisor, devised a way to help draw awareness to the program by having a new white van used to take food to meal sites painted with fresh fruits and vegetables and to have it playing music as it approaches meal sites to alert children it is arriving. Sixty-four percent of students in AOS 92 qualify for free and reduced lunch.

Steven and Chelsey Proctor, of China, had come to the playground Monday with their three children, Desiree, 7; Dylan, 6; and Levi, 2, to check out the playground and did not know the food program was kicking off. They were invited to share in the lunch, which included hamburgers, hot dogs, carrots, apples, milk and juice.

“I think it’s great,” Steven Proctor, 29, said. “We don’t really come here. We’re on vacation this week. We just kind of popped in.”

He and his wife, 30, said they pay $2.60 per school lunch for their two eldest children, and $1 per breakfast, so they could imagine it could be tough for some families to pay for children’s meals.

Meanwhile, Sara Sylvester, chairman of the Waterville Board of Education, said the program is “terrific.”

“I think it’s so exciting. There’s a need and we’re here to take care of our children,” Sylvester said.

Meal sites are listed at summerfoodrocks, or call 211.

Amy Calder — 861-9247

[email protected]

Twitter: @AmyCalder17

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