Summer vacation is one of the best parts of being a kid. It’s 11 weeks of nothing but bike rides, games of tag, Saturday morning cartoons, and relaxation.
For some families, though, the end of the school year means something else: 11 weeks without the aid of school lunches.
The Seacoast Family Food Pantry (SFFP), celebrating 200 years of service this year, has these families in mind. As local schools begin closing for the summer, the pantry is busier than ever, working with partners throughout the community to run the Summer Meals 4 Kids program and make sure no child goes hungry over the coming months.
The program provides 10 meals per week for children who would ordinarily get free or reduced breakfast and lunch through their school. SFFP executive director Deb Anthony said that eligible families receive weekly supplements, including milk, bread, eggs, fresh fruits and vegetables, and either deli meat or peanut butter and jelly for sandwiches, as well as dry and canned snacks and goods.
While the perishable goods are purchased fresh weekly with monetary donations, SFFP is working with The Music Hall in Portsmouth to stock up on dry, nonperishable goods to round out the food baskets.
“This year, more than ever, we’re really testing, how do you collaborate and how do you make it effective?” Anthony said. “How can we all do what we do best to really make something happen for these kids and these families?”
For The Music Hall, the answer to that question is the second annual Fill the Hall Food Drive, scheduled to take place on Saturday, June 25. This one-day food drive challenges individuals, businesses, and organizations in Portsmouth to fill every seat in the historic theater with food donations. All the food collected goes directly to Summer Meals 4 Kids.
Last year’s event raised five tons of donated goods. This year, organizers are hoping to double that total to 10 tons.
Denise Wheeler is a local school librarian who has worked with a number of charitable organizations over the years. Inspired by a similar event she’d been introduced to by a friend, Wheeler approached The Music Hall last year and started helping them plan the food drive.
“We piloted Fill the Hall last year and did not know what to expect,” Wheeler said. “We would have been happy just to fill the orchestra, but the community responded in a way that, frankly, made us cry. By 1 p.m., The Music Hall was full and we were piling donations on the stage.”
In its second year, Fill the Hall coincides with The Music Hall’s Community Open House, which will include backstage and tech tours, as well as a complimentary movie screening.
“It made sense to combine the Fill the Hall Food Drive with the Community Open House,” said Monte Bohanan, director of marketing at The Music Hall. “It fills the need for the SFFP at the beginning of the summer, and it gets people a sneak peek behind the scenes and into the history of The Music Hall.”
Without an event like the food drive, Bohanan said, it would not occur to some people to make donations in the summer.
“It is a real time of need for the food pantry, when donations are at a low point,” he said. “Many of us think about donating food only around the holidays.”
Requests for food through Summer Meals 4 Kids have increased by 100 percent this year, and Fill the Hall organizers are hoping to match that growing need with a 100-percent increase in donations.
“It’s hard to imagine doubling (last year’s donations), but it’s harder to imagine kids going without meals over the summer, so I’m hoping this community rises again and makes 10 tons of food happen.” Wheeler said.
According to Anthony, Summer Meals 4 Kids is now responsible for providing two meals a day for around 300 children this summer, and every donation helps.
“When you’re feeding 300 children a week, 10 meals, that’s a lot of food,” Anthony said. “(Fill the Hall) is great for us, and I think it’s also really great public awareness, because people come in and they see it and they touch it and they feel like they’re part of something and that they’re able to give. I think it’s a great statement.”
On the day of the event, volunteers will be stationed at The Music Hall. Those who don’t have time to enter the building can simply pull up to the curb in front of the theater and a volunteer will bring their donations inside. Donations can also be made later in the day on June 24. And donations are always accepted at the Seacoast Family Food Pantry at 7 Junkins Ave. in Portsmouth.
“It’s easy for people to feel hopeless about the big issues facing our country today,” Wheeler said. “Fill the Hall provides a day of citizen empowerment to stem that hopelessness. It shows that we, as a community, have shared values and that when we all pitch in we can make a difference.”
The Fill the Hall Food Drive & Community Open House takes place Saturday, June 25, from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. at The Music Hall, 28 Chestnut St., Portsmouth. For more information, find the event on Facebook here.