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On June 30, Branford launched a free summer breakfast and lunch program for kids 18 and younger, thanks to a cooperative effort forming The End Hunger Initiative of Branford, CT.
From 7:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. every Monday through Friday, now through Aug. 15, the program serves nutritious meals at Branford High School (BHS) and Tisko Elementary School. No registration, identification, or other paper work is required for kids to receive the free meals. The meals are whipped up by Chartwells Executive Chef Julio Montes and served with help from local volunteers (more are welcome).
"The End Hunger Initiative serves to bridge the gap created with the close of school for summer vacation," said Board of Education (BOE) Chairman Michael Krause. "We encourage all Branford children and youth to take advantage of the healthy meals offered daily."
The Branford initiative is a joint effort of Branford Public Schools, Chartwells, Community Dining Room (CDR), Soundview YMCA, Branford Parks & Recreation Department, and Branford volunteers. Busing is being provided with assistance from First Student Transportation, Inc. The program is funded by a federal grant that reimburses meal expenses.
Superintendent of Schools Hamlet Hernandez said Branford became eligible for the summer program because BHS and Tisko were successfully identified as potential feeding sites by the U.S. Dept. of Agriculture, which oversees the Summer Food Service Program.
"There has been a great deal of collaboration to bring this to Branford," said Hernandez. "Some of us have been meeting or communicating about this for the past six to eight weeks. It's been a real community effort, a real team effort.
Participants do not need to be Branford residents to receive free meals, he added.
"There is no eligibility requirement, there is no cost requirement, and they do not have to be Branford residents," Hernandez told The Sound. "We anticipate it will most likely serve Branford residents, but that is not a restriction."
However, he noted, among Branford public school students served meals during the rest of the year, "clearly our percentage of free and reduced [cost] eligibility in our school system is on the rise-we're at 23 percent right now. So we saw the need to bridge the gap from when school's in session and children are having meals. Whether it's free or reduced pay, they eat typically mornings as well as lunch at school. So in summer when they're active, but have family members working, this is a wonderful opportunity for them to have access to those meals," said Hernandez.
About 300 Branford Parks & Recreation summer camp students will be bused in to BHS for the free meals several times a week, as will Kindercare kids and Teen Travel participants, said Dale Izzo, assistant director of Parks & Rec.
Parks & Rec. Director Alex Palluzzi said the program is "an invaluable resource to approximately 300 5- to 12 year olds and 100 teenagers enrolled in the programs," adding, "Hamlet and Dale were instrumental in securing busing and scheduling in a short period of time to make this program a reality."
At Tisko, at least 80 children from Soundview YMCA's programming at Walsh Intermediate School will be bused over for free meals, said Doug Shaw, Soundview Y's executive director.
"Our program at Walsh is not just for Branford kids, but also kids from other towns," said Shaw. "The parents are really excited about this opportunity-and the menu is outstanding."
In addition, at BHS, summer athletes and students at the school, as well as the district's 75 "Summer Scholars" (grades 2 and 3), can enjoy the free meals, said Hernandez. Of course, drop-ins are also welcome, and parents who bring their children can check in with site supervisors to see if a meal is available for them, too.
Overall, "we anticipate probably between 300 and 400 kids served daily, on an average," said Hernandez.
Chartwells Resident Dietician Aliza Stern said there will be "healthy options" including fruits and vegetable available daily. Montes is including a breakfast yogurt bar on Wednesdays (self-serve at BHS) as part of the weekly menu and has turkey hot dogs, whole grain breads, homemade pizza, and chicken quesadillas among many lunch offerings.
"We created a special menu just to accommodate the summer program. The effort of the entire community here is amazing," said Montes, adding his smaller summer staff is grateful to have the assistance of volunteers.
CDR Executive Director Patricia Kral is working with retired BOE chair Frank Carrano to organize volunteers to help with meals as well as direct and monitor guests.
"We have volunteers, but we also need volunteers. We've divided it into two shifts, so there's an extensive opportunity to help," said Kral.
"One of this program's unique aspects is the volunteer component," said Carrano. "We're asking people from the community to step up and help make the program work. So far we've been quite successful. They're rising to the surface."
Hernandez also thanked interim Branford School Facilities Supervisor Joe Carbone and the school custodial staffs for quickly readying "very clean, very welcoming," cafeterias. Both buildings are air conditioned. Carbone said an additional summer help custodial member has been added to assist during program hours.
Entry to the buildings will be monitored and access to other areas will not be allowed, noted Hernandez.
"Although it is drop-in between 7:30 a.m. and 12:30 p.m., the entry at the high school and Tisko will be clearly marked, and we'll also have monitors. It takes place in an open space, but it will be cordoned off so people can't roam the building," said Hernandez.
Learn more about the meals program at www.branfordschools.org or find out how to volunteer by visiting www.communitydiningroom.org and sending an email Pat Kral. Meals are free to those aged 18 and younger, Monday to Friday through Aug. 15 at Branford High School, 185 East Main Street, and Mary Tisko School, 118 Damascus Road. Breakfast is served from 7:30 to 10:30 a.m., and lunch from 10:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. For more information, call Chartwells at 203-315-6741.