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Portage Free Summer Lunch Program finds success with new location

July 15, 2018

There is no shortage of demand for the free summer lunch program among Portage children as organizers review the program halfway into its fourth year.

At a meeting Monday evening at the Portage Presbyterian Church, program volunteers went over some of the successes and challenges of the four free lunch sites, with Sanborn Park replacing last year’s site at the Columbia County Fairgrounds.

Dawn Foster of the Portage Public Library estimated she serves about 30 children a day, with up to 10 children lined up when they start serving at 11:15 a.m.

The meals served at each of the four sites are packaged at Wisconsin Dells schools, where the program originated in coordination with the University of Wisconsin Extension before expanding to nearby communities. Foster suggested a couple tweaks at the Portage site to get meals unloaded faster so the delivery van can get to the next site.

“Sanborn is a big hit,” said volunteer Karen Meierdirk, noting the site is so popular it has at time run out of meals before the last two or three children could be served.

“I did notice that all the kids at Sanborn Park are very polite — everyone was right there with thank yous.”

Before noon Friday, a half dozen children began making their way to Sanborn Park cooling in the shade of the shelter before Ilona Baradziej and Marta Swanson arrived just after noon with meals in the back of their van.

Setting up a folding table with coolers of lunches and cartons of milk, Baradziej confirmed there were a couple afternoons where they were short of meals.

Since then, they have corrected their meal count with one lingering request that on the busier days, they could maybe use a bench or something for seating when there are more children.

Although the origin of the program and the meals themselves come out of Wisconsin Dells, an ongoing goal has been to develop community investment in the program. Financial support has come from local donors, including a grant from the city of Portage. As with many community efforts, there also has been an ongoing push for volunteers.

“It’s not bad,” said Portage Presbyterian Church Rev. David Hankins. “Up through August, we’re probably two-thirds full.”

“Is it OK to have teenagers sign up?” asked Meierdirk.

“Absolutely, ask them,” said Hankins.

An effort to extend the program the full length of summer has proved challenging, as meals needed to be provided from another source. For those gap days, volunteers tried handing out “snack packs” similar to the school weekend snack pack program, which included items such as oatmeal, with necessitated some level of cooking and preparation. It was determined to be “a bomb.”

Another option floated at the meeting, was doing “cook outs” with hot dogs and reaching out to local service organizations for assistance.

Penny Kiefer began working out options and likely budgets for the last two weeks, asking what kinds of sandwiches and vegetables are likely to go over with the kids.

“Keep it simple,” Foster said.

Since the group started with one location at the Portage Public Library, the program has expanded to four locations serving more than 5,000 total meals in 2017.

Anyone interested in contributing or volunteering can find more information at the UW-Extension’s Free Summer Lunch Website.

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