The Essex Westford School District says its free summer meals program served 28,619 meals this summer, a 20-percent spike over the prior year.

Run by the district’s child nutrition program and offered to anyone under the age of 18, the free meals service dealt out almost five thousand more meals compared to last year, according to senior child nutrition manager Scott Fay, who said the data shows “the community is in a greater need than it’s ever been.”

“When school’s out, there’s so many households that don’t have food,” Fay said. “This program keeps kids eating healthy during the time when school meals aren’t available.”

This year marked the district’s sixth summer offering the federally-funded, free meals program.

Previously, it ran the program out of both Maple Street Park and Fleming School. But sites must be located within low-income areas, where at least 50 percent of the children residing in the area are eligible for free- and reduced-lunch, and the census tract around Fleming no longer met that threshold.

So the district decided to “double down” on its Maple Street site, beefing up its marketing efforts with the help of some local community organizations, which Fay believes led to the increase.

“Any community can come and join us and I think we saw that more this year than we had seen in the past,” he added.

Nearly 26 percent of students in the Essex Westford School District qualify for free lunches, meaning their family’s income is at or below 130 percent of the federal poverty level: $25,750 for a four-person family in 2019. And families whose income fall between 130 percent and 185 percent of that total qualify for reduced meals.

The Vt. Agency of Education oversees programs throughout the state. Sponsors like EWSD run the programs and report data to the AOE, which passes along funding from the Vt. Department of Agriculture to cover the meals and labor. The AOE says in the summer of 2018, 59 sponsors served 427,758 meals at almost 300 Vermont sites.

It’s too early to tell how EWSD’s increase compares to the rest of Vermont, though the number of meals served around the state has mostly held steady, in recent years, according to Rebecca Mitchell, child nutrition services manager at Hunger Free Vermont.

Mitchell joined the nonprofit in 2015 and oversees its work to promote summer meals programs. She said the growth at EWSD’s site is a testament to the work of the district’s child nutrition team.

“In the last few years, with the district consolidating, I think they really took that as an opportunity to dig into the programs they have to feed kids and make sure that they’re sharing and celebrating [them],” Mitchell said.

Part of Mitchell’s job is to help organizations like EWSD overcome barriers preventing more children from using the meals programs. For more rural communities, that can often take the form of transportation, she said. But there’s also a persistent stigma surrounding free meals programs: that they are only for low-income families. Mitchell said Hunger Free Vermont has worked to challenge that idea in recent years.

“The more kids who are meeting at this place on a daily basis, the stronger the program becomes and the more likely those resources will be available in future summers,” she said. “Even if [parents] feel like they’re not struggling or don’t need to participate, it’s good for their kids and good for their neighbors and community.”