Growing Summer Eats program in Gardner seeking volunteers to help meet the demand – News – The Gardner News


GARDNER — As the days enter the homestretch of summer over the next few weeks, the public school system’s popular Summer Eats meal program will be operating daily to keep up with demand.

The program’s drive-thru pickup sites at Gardner High School and Waterford Street School, which offer free breakfasts and lunches for all kids and teens, will be open Monday through Friday for one hour from 11 a.m. to 12 p.m. In addition, the program’s food truck will make nine stops throughout the city between 11 a.m. and 1:30 p.m. Monday through Friday.

“The program was previously offered just three days per week, so we’re trying to expand and still keep everybody healthy, and because of all the COVID it’s still kind of hard for people to get food,” explained Angela Lyon, the kitchen manager at Gardner High School.

Especially popular this summer are the free boxes of produce that became available in May after the district enrolled in the USDA’s Farmers to Families Food Box Program. The federal program was established to move the nation’s surplus agriculture directly to the public during the coronavirus pandemic. The USDA partnered with national, regional and local suppliers whose workforce had been significantly impacted by the closure of restaurants, hotels and other food service businesses.

Officials said Gardner received around 650 20-pound boxes of produce twice a week. The boxes are available at the Gardner High and Waterford Street School pickup sites when they are in operation; the produce is not available from the food truck.

“We do 100 boxes each day here (at the high school), and 10 boxes at Waterford,” Lyon said. “I know we’re trying to give out as many boxes as we can; it’s usually one to a family, but we’re trying to give out at least two because the Middle School (received) way more of those produce boxes than we expected — we just keep getting deliveries.”

Gardner Museum Director Marion Knoll was among the volunteers helping to load boxes of produce into cars at the high school on Tuesday, July 21. She said picking up and carrying the heavy boxes for one hour each day is an effective exercise session.

“I don’t need to go to the gym because this is quite a workout, but it’s so gratifying to see these people who are so grateful to be getting the food,” Knoll said. “It’s so sad that Gardner has such a high percentage of food insecurity, but this (program) is so wonderful. Feeding people is my kind of volunteering.”

Lyon said the program, which will continue to at least Friday, Aug. 14, could use some more help from residents willing to donate an hour of their time to hand out meals and produce boxes.

“We are definitely looking for volunteers,” Lyon said, adding that anyone who would like to help out should simply show up at one of the schools before 11 a.m. any day during the week. “We need help from people who can lift boxes.”

Renee Eldredge, a care coordinator and community health worker from Winchendon, said she has been volunteering with the program since it began in March.

“My mantra is, ‘It takes a village,’ so I think it’s important to take care of one another, and this is my way of contributing,” Eldredge said. “I enjoy giving back to our community, I enjoy helping in whatever little way I can to help reduce food disparity in such a crazy and unprecedented time. It’s just a little way to give back.”

Debbie Johnson of Gardner has been volunteering to hand out breakfasts and lunches at Waterford Street School, where she works as a preschool paraprofessional, since the program first began. She said that in addition to helping keep local families fed during the pandemic shutdown, volunteering allows her to visit — however briefly — with some of her students.

“This gives me the opportunity to make myself feel useful, but I also get to see some of my kids come through the line, and that little interaction when they see a familiar face and they smile, it gives them a little bit of continuity in this crazy world,” Eldredge said.

During a stop at Pulaski Park, food truck manager Maria Sapeg said response to the now-daily schedule has been well received by the public. Breakfasts, which usually include cereal and fruit, and lunches, which include a sandwich and vegetable, can both be picked up during the same stop, she explained.

“A lot of people have been coming out, especially when we get to the swimming pool, Monument Park and Jackson Playground,” she said.

The food truck schedule, Monday through Friday, includes the following stops: Bickford Playground from 10:40 a.m. to 10:55 a.m.; The Village from 11 a.m. to 11:15 a.m.; Pulaski Park from 11:20 a.m. to 11:35 a.m.; Ovila Case Playground from 11:40 a.m. to 11:55 a.m.; Greenwood Memorial Pool from 12 p.m. to 12:15 p.m.; Monument Park from 12:20 p.m. to 12:35 p.m.; Jackson Skate Park from 12:40 p.m. to 12:55 p.m.; Dunn Park from 1 p.m. to 1:15 p.m.; and Gardner Middle School from 1:20 p.m. to 1:30 p.m.



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