NEWPORT — Students returned to school last week, and some did so on fuller stomachs than last year thanks to a volunteer-run program dedicated to fighting summer hunger.
This summer, Got Lunch Newport delivered groceries to 66 children in 29 families over 11 weeks.
“Our philosophy is to help fragile families get through the summer,” said Charen Urban, program coordinator of Got Lunch Newport and former social studies teacher at Newport High School.
In the Newport school district, 48 percent of students are eligible for free and reduced school lunch. By comparison, the state average is 26 percent.
During the summer, students who rely on the school system to provide them with up to two meals a day often go hungry. Got Lunch Newport aimed to fill that gap.
The volunteers met at South Congregational Church every Monday morning, where they packaged and distributed weekly groceries. The food was either donated or purchased with money from grants and donations.
About half the food came from the New Hampshire Food Bank, which only charges a nine-cent per pound handling fee. The more than three tons of food received from the food bank cost less than $600.
Each week families received breakfast cereal, sandwich materials, baby carrots, fresh fruit, cheeses, a dozen eggs, a half-gallon of milk per child and the supplies for two family meals.
The success of Got Lunch Newport is the result of a concerted collaboration among community partners. It was also a couple years in the making.
Back in 2016, a group of individuals held meetings to brainstorm how they could address hunger in Sullivan County. They eventually got in touch with the organizers behind the original Got Lunch program in Laconia.
After Laconia pioneered the idea of a volunteer-driven summer food delivery system, the Got Lunch model spread to communities all over the state. Towns such as Gilford, Rumney, Plymouth, Jaffrey and Rindge adopted it.
The Sullivan Country group considered taking another year to prepare to implement its own version of the program, but Urban decided to scale back their vision so they could set it in motion in Newport this summer.
“The Laconia program is eight years old,” said Urban. “One of the Laconia organizers explained that this means there are kids in high school that haven’t known hunger.”
That way of looking at it inspired Urban to act.
Urban obtained the South Congregational Church as the program’s fiscal sponsor. She also needed to make sure Got Lunch Newport conformed to the New Hampshire Food Bank and New Hampshire Charitable Foundation’s criteria to secure their support.
After that, Urban sought grants and donations from local organizations known to sponsor charitable programs. She received $5,000 from Newport Charitable Fund, and the First Baptist Church of New London also contributed significant funds.
Many other organizations such as the Newport Service Organization, Newport Charities Trust/Church of the Epiphany, Claremont Savings Bank, Foresters of Newport Ladies Auxiliary and Newport Tennis Club donated money and materials.
Reusable bags were donated by Sugar River Bank, Bar Harbor Bank and Trust and Full Circle Farm. Several organizations, including Richards School, solicited peanut butter, jelly and mayonnaise.
Urban also assembled an advisory board consisting of Stacey Hammerlind, Elaine Frank, Karen Little, Aaron Jenkyn, Jessie and Rev. Elliot Fay, Cindy Clifford and herself.
Hammerlind, the family and community coordinator for the Newport School District, helped register which students would benefit from the program in its first year.
An already existing program sponsored by the Newport Food Pantry sends at-risk students home with food on weekends during the school year, so Hammerlind worked with the school to offer those families the opportunity to enroll in Got Lunch Newport.
Little took care of inventory management, keeping track of everything in a detailed spreadsheet and managing the storage closet to make sure the program accumulated and stored sufficient quantities of each food item every week.
“There are so many things we don’t have control over,” Little explained, “This is one thing we can do that has an immediate, positive impact.”
On any given week, about 15-20 volunteers packaged and delivered the groceries. Across the entire summer a total of 40 individuals volunteered, including four teenagers.
Volunteers arrived at South Church around 7:30 a.m. Meanwhile, Urban and Frank purchased whatever perishable food items were needed that week from local grocery stores.
By 8:30, the cars were filled with bags and coolers stuffed with food. Drivers completed their deliveries before 10.
Bryan LaFountain notes that each week the group of volunteers became more efficient, developing a rhythm with one another and having fun with it.
“I’ve lived in Newport my whole life and was privileged enough to never deal with food insecurity,” said LaFountain. “I can help out for a few hours a week.”
The volunteers plan to offer Got Lunch again next summer. Urban is in the process of preparing an annual report that will quantify the program’s total impact.
The families also received a survey in their second-to-last bag that will help the board assess the program.
“Beyond making sure kids don’t go hungry,” said Urban, “I want Got Lunch to have shown students that the school and community care about them.”
Got Lunch intends to expand its reach by including children from the Croydon, Lempster and Goshen communities.
The program hopes to secure additional funding and community support to accomplish its goals for next year. Those who would like to get involved are encouraged to contact Urban at (603) 995-1248 or firstname.lastname@example.org.