Free Summer Lunch Program seeks volunteers

September 28, 2018

The organizers of the Portage Summer Lunch Program want to show their appreciation for those that helped in a record year, but some volunteers were all but anonymous.

The leaders of the Portage section of the Free Summer Lunch Program, an offshoot program from a program organized by the University of Wisconsin-Extension with the Wisconsin Dells School District where the meals are prepared, met Monday to review the fifth summer of the program.

“We wanted to do an evaluation of the summer and got a feel for how things went from the core group that was directing things,” said Dawn Foster, who leads the Portage Public Library Children’s Library programming. The final numbers have yet to be totaled by the Wisconsin Dells School District Food Services, but preliminary impressions are positive.

“We’re just able to say the last two weeks that we were packing lunches and distributing, (we served) 602 meals, which is pretty good,” Foster said.

Among the challenges of the past year has been organizing local food sourcing and distribution at the beginning of the year, after the Portage school year ends and before the Dells program starts, and the last two weeks after the Dells ends, but before Portage schools begin. Full summer coverage was one of the goals of the past year, along with a move of one of the four lunch sites from the Columbia County Fairgrounds to Sanborn Park.

“Everything seemed to work and the things we were anxious about, like how the last two weeks were going to work with us doing it on our own, all that fell into place and worked beautifully,” said Portage Presbyterian Church Minister David Hankins. In particular, over that last two weeks, according to Hankins, volunteers began coming out of the woodwork looking to help the program.

According to Food Wise Coordinator Caitlin Richardson, there were 46 volunteers over the course of the summer, including 14 who covered the last two weeks.

Summer Lunch Organizers would like to thank all those volunteers, but some came and went without leaving any contact information, making invitations problematic. The group will host a dinner on Oct. 15 at the Portage VFW Hall, where organizers will seek input on the past summer and ideas for the next.

“I think there is a real sense of humility with this because it is ever-changing and morphing into something different, which is good,” Hankins said. “We had no preconceived approach to this when we started five years ago.”

Over the past five years, the program has expanded from one free lunch site at the Portage Public Library to four sites in 2017 and 2018. Last year, the program served more than 5,000 meals.

At the dinner, organizers will also be announcing final totals and statistics from the past summer.

Along with revisiting the results of the past year while it is fresh in people’s minds, the group is moving into what Hankins refers to as “the dream phase,” when the doors are thrown open for suggestions, goals and aspirations, such as opening a fifth site.

“We did mention a fifth site and it is going to depend on funding, like everything, and that’s all I can say for now,” Foster said. “But that is one of our long-range goals is that we might have a fifth site and bring more volunteers, and to have volunteers more vested in the program to spread the work around.”

Foster has been impressed with the success of the past summer, with dedicated volunteers joining her at the library. Visitors have also been remarkably polite with thank-yous and helping to clean up the Children’s Library Activity Room after the meals.

“We had groups of families that I don’t think they knew each other before they came to lunch,” Foster said, “but then they were making friends as they ate lunch at the long tables and then there were friends that knew each other and it became like a date for some people to have lunch with each other.”

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