PEABODY — On the front lawn of the town library, a small girl in a pink Mickey Mouse T-shirt jumped to the dance music playing from a portable speaker. Nearby, an older girl in purple spun with abandon while a more restrained young boy, holding his mother’s hand, bounced his hips to the beat.
They had just finished free roast beef sandwiches, pretzels, and applesauce. Now, it was time to dance.
This afternoon dance party is just one of scores of activities held at more than 600 sites statewide to encourage participation in the Summer Food Service Program, a federally funded extension of the school lunch program that aims to make sure low-income children get enough to eat when classes are not in session.
More than 363,000 Massachusetts children are eligible for free or discounted meals during the school year, but only 21 percent living in communities that qualify for the summer program took advantage of it last year. About 80 percent participated when school was in session.
That’s where activities like dancing — sports, field trips, and arts and crafts — come in, creating a venue for kids to get lunch during the summer without the atmosphere of a soup kitchen.
“What matters is that large numbers of low-income kids in our state get a lunch and they feel OK getting it, that they don’t feel like poor kids that are being fed,” said Ellen Parker, executive director of Project Bread, a nonprofit that works with the state to administer the summer lunch program.
To achieve this goal, the state generally selects nonprofits and other organizations with experience engaging children, said Kathleen Millet, executive director of the state’s Office for Nutrition, Health, and Safety Programs. Libraries, YMCAs, and Boys and Girls Clubs are frequent partners. Sites are in communities with high concentrations of low-income families, but once a location is running, any child can get lunch.
In Peabody, daily activities include dancing, painting, and crafts. For Kaylee Dinkle, 3, of Salem, the dancing is the best part of the program. Her mother, Megan Dinkle, also appreciates the chance to get her two children out of the house and eating a wholesome meal. “It’s nice to have the free lunch, especially now — it’s difficult times for people,” she said.
In Southbridge, the summer food program is at the heart of a six-week camp called Cops ‘N’ Kids. Serving about 120 children free of charge, the program offers breakfast and lunch as part of daylong activities, said director Sergeant Jose Dingui of the Southbridge police.
The children work in a garden, go hiking, and take field trips to places such as Mystic Aquarium in Connecticut and the Massachusetts State House. They even get to try their hands at police work, taking fingerprints at a “crime scene” set up by the staff, identifying a suspect, and holding a mock trial of the alleged bad guy.
The program aims to create strong ties between police and the community, while giving children somewhere safe to go . “Some kids, unfortunately, you can tell that is one of the only times they’re going to have a good meal,” he said.
The Lowell Boys and Girls Club, which feeds as many as 250 children a day, offers activities such as access to a music room with instruments and recording equipment. The East Boston YMCA runs 35 summer food sites across Boston and offers sports, arts and crafts, and math.
“Because we do make it fun and there are other things going on along with [the food], kids don’t feel embarrassed to come get meals,” Joey Cuzzi, executive director of the East Boston YMCA, said.
During the school year, children in a four-person household that makes up to $31,005 are eligible for free meals; families with incomes up to $44,123 qualify for reduced-price meals. Children’s reluctance to appear poor is not the only challenge the program faces.
Most summer food sites qualify for federal funding, which comes through the US Department of Agriculture, by being in a community where at least half of children qualify for the free or reduced-price lunch program. But nearly 100,000 children eligible for the school-year program but do not live in one of these communities.