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Article Published May 22, 2019
When it Comes to Kids’ Nutrition, Kathy Cobb Doesn’t Quit
Aviva Luria, Staff Reporter

Kathy Cobb isn’t one to give up when faced with adversity. A registered dietician and nutritionist, she has run the Old Saybrook free children’s summer lunch program, Kidz Summer Lunch Bunch, since 2015, when it was first implemented. For three summers from 2015 through 2017, Old Saybrook qualified for the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA)’s summer food service program because one region of the town had 50 percent of children coming from families with incomes at or below 185 percent of the federal poverty level. When that percentage dropped to 46, the town lost its USDA eligibility.

Kathy wasn’t about to give up. She wasn’t going to abandon kids who might not have access to a nutritious meal during the summer. The program was already staffed by volunteers, but the cost of the meals had been reimbursed by the USDA. Now, even the food would have to be donated.

Despite losing USDA funding, the program was allowed to continue using its regular meal site, the Quinnetekut Chapel, on Boston Post Road near Main Street.

Then the building was sold.

“That’s why last May, we didn’t know where we were going to go,” she explains.

But the community stepped up. The First Church of Christ on Main Street donated meals and its site one day a week. Local restaurants Luigi’s and Pasta Vita donated meals. The Estuary Council of Seniors provided milk and use of its refrigerators. The Acton Public Library opened its doors and Goodwin Elementary allowed the program to serve meals under its gazebo.

Kathy and her team of volunteers forged on. And this summer, Penny Lane Pub and the Parthenon Diner have also come on board.

“They totally contribute their food,” she says. “It is, to me, absolutely awesome. And when I called people back—last year we had Pasta Vita and Luigi’s—when I called them back, within three minutes they returned the call and said, ‘We’re in for this year.’

“That, to me, is remarkable,” she says.

The schedule mirrors that of Old Saybrook’s summer school program, this year running from Monday, July 8 through Friday, Aug. 1, from 11:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. In a previous year, the meal program ran a week past the end of summer school, but attendance dropped.

Meals this year will be distributed and eaten at just two sites: under the gazebo at Goodwin School on Mondays and Tuesdays, and at the Acton Library on Wednesdays and Thursdays.

At the library, a craft activity will be offered after the meal, according to Acton Assistant Director and Children’s Librarian Karen Giugno. She already has a cart set up with books the children can take home, some of which are bilingual or entirely in Spanish. There are also small canvas bags that the kids can color with markers and use to take their book and craft home. Then they can bring the bag back and use it to carry home books they’ve checked out of the library.

The library is a perfect location, Kathy says. The driver picks up the food, borrows a library cart to wheel it into the building, then takes the elevator up to the second floor to the Grady Thomas Program Room, where the children pick up their bagged lunches and sit down to eat. Under the rules of the program, food can’t be taken off the premises.

Kathy hopes the program is reassuring to parents who have to work during the summer

“It’s going to be more nutritious than chips or soda that they might have at home,” she says. “I mean, if kids are fending for themselves, I know what my grandkids would probably choose...This is a really nice option for parents to know that at least their kids are getting a nutritious meal.”

Kids can walk or ride their bikes to either location, she says—”We’re really centrally located.”

Registration is not necessary; any child can show up and get lunch.

“That’s the good news, but that’s the unfortunate news, too, because we have no idea about who will attend. If kids come on Monday that doesn’t necessarily mean the same kids will come on Tuesday,” Kathy says.

“We averaged last year 12 a day,” she says. “One day no one showed. Another day, 30 kids came. So there’s no predictability.”

On the day that 30 kids came, “I called Pasta Vita and they said, sure they’re on it,” she continues. “So they made more sandwiches. And then Youth & Family Services...also has snack packs [for] gluten-free needs or dairy-free needs. Last year was the first time we had children who [needed] gluten-free, dairy-free [food]. It was a lot more complicated. But we’re prepared, so they do get something to eat.”

The bagged lunches usually contain fruit and chips. For the second year, Pizza Works will supply chocolate milk. There’ll also be regular milk on hand.

“Because of my background in nutrition, I want... to make sure they have milk with their lunch,” Kathy says. “And I know if you have 20 kids, 18 are going to want chocolate milk and two are going to take white milk.”

There are still costs associated with the program. A grant from Old Saybrook’s Public Health Nursing Board helps with some of them, such as utensils, coolers, thermometers, and signs, both for publicity and to post the rules at the sites.

“I have to take out insurance, personal insurance, because you have to insure the food not only with a child choking on it, but if there would be some sort of problem with the food itself,” she says.

Kathy and her husband cover the cost of the insurance.

Kathy, along with assistants, also teaches cooking to Old Saybrook Middle School students. The Grub Club, as it’s called, is an opportunity for kids to learn about nutrition, as well.

“One of the things we did was to bring in different veggies to have a salad,” she says. “And so we had cherry tomatoes, we had the mini peppers, which I love, because they’re sweet and the kids just love them. And I also brought in carrots.

“Well, some of the kids—these were primarily 4th graders—some of the kids had never seen a carrot with its stem on. Because they’re used to their moms or dads [buying] the carrots in the bag—you know, baby carrots, they’re all cleaned. So the kids are washing, because you really have to wash the carrot, and had to peel the carrot, and cut the carrot, and they saw the taste difference, too.”

Kathy hopes both programs encourage children to try and learn to enjoy different foods.

“You can talk and talk and talk and show and show, but unless the child is going to eat the food it doesn’t give any nutrition,” she says.