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Children receive free summer meals in Lincoln Park in Portage in June 2017. Serving them were Ilona Baradzie, left, and Wanda Garrett, who both work in food service in the Wisconsin Dells School District. 

With summer approaching, volunteers are readying to fill the needs for children who count on school lunches to have three square meals each day.

Tuesday evening, members of the Summer Lunch Program committee met at the Portage Public Library to organize their fourth summer providing free lunches to local kids.

“If it weren’t for Portage and Endeavor, the program probably wouldn’t have survived,” said Greg Heller, Wisconsin Dells School District’s food service director, reflecting on how the program evolved to the current procedure in which meals are prepped daily in Wisconsin Dells and brought to Portage sites.

The program in Portage has expanded from 1,600 meals served only at the Portage Public Library the first year, to 3,100 meals served the next year at the library and Splash Pad, and in the third year more than 5,000 meals served at four sites. The least-utilized site may be discontinued this summer.

The expansion locations were at Lincoln Park and a bus stop at the Columbia County Fairgrounds. However, volunteers said the Fairgrounds location only had a couple of kids showing up some days. Alternative locations have been discussed.

“We had been looking at the park across from St. John’s,” said committee member and librarian Dawn Foster.

According to 2015 data from Wisconsin Food Security Project, four Portage public schools serve 40 percent or more of their lunches as free or at reduced-cost with 41 percent in Lewiston Elementary, 46 percent at Wayne Bartels Middle School, 55 percent at Portage Academy and 62 percent at Rusch Elementary.

Cambria expansion

In addition to retooling some of Portage’s program, the group is looking to provide service in the Cambria-Friesland school district.

“We discussed it a year or two ago, but because of logistics, weren’t able to pursue it,” said Cambria-Friesland School Superintendent Tim Raymond. “But it was working with a group of folks that have become known as the Partners for Cambria-Friesland that got together after the Didion Milling explosion to work on various needs that would arise out of the event.”

After meeting with members of Columbia County Health and Human Services, Raymond was pointed to the program based out of the Dells, funded through a grant from the United Way and supplemented by volunteers, and donations including from the city of Portage.

“Logistics are going to be a challenge, but what we’re looking to do is meeting them at the halfway point in Portage,” Raymond said. “If we can find a transport that can pick up the meals on a regular basis throughout the summer, we believe we will be able to do it.”

If Cambria-Friesland hosts the program through June, the elementary school could serve as a convenient pickup point during summer school, Raymond said.

In Portage, the program was expanded in 2017 from four to five days a week and from 10 weeks to the whole summer. To make that happen, the group found additional sources to fill the gaps, with the last two weeks covered with meals prepared by Northwoods catering company, and pizza from Pizza Ranch.

An ongoing challenge has been organizing volunteers to fill in the daily meal schedule throughout the city and locating or volunteers to distribute the meals.

Portage Presbyterian Church Pastor David Hankins and retired 4-H Youth Development Educator Karen Nelson developed the Portage program.

One point of focus for the group has been in public outreach, in both making families aware of the program and collecting survey data afterward. In previous years, the group has communicated through schools and canvassed with door hangers in the final weeks of school.