Almost 1 in 4 Maine children do not have access to enough food to fill their nutrional needs, a condition known as food insecurity.
That means on any given day, a quarter of the state’s students are going to school in the morning hungry and leaving in the afternoon unsure if they’ll get a full meal at home.
Breakfast and lunch may be provided when school is in session, but nights, weekends, holidays and vacations can leave kids hungry.
“We can’t even begin to do writing, reading and math until we take care of their social-emotional needs,” Allan Martin, principal at the George Mitchell School in Waterville, told the newspaper recently.
“It’s making sure they are hardy, mentally and socially. If we don’t get them at this age, we’re going to lose them. It’s a sad statement to make, but they become dropouts.”
To help fill the gaps in student diets, the Waterville school is opening a food pantry. It will be the 14th school-based food pantry to open in Maine in the last year or so, since the first one was established at Portland High School.
The school-based pantries are proving to be a cheap and effective way to deliver food to families that need it. As unemployment and poverty continue to put pressure on sources of public aid, the food pantries are a way to leverage private donations and community initiative to feed kids, and help improve school performance.
The food pantries are being operated in partnership with Auburn-based Good Shepherd Food Bank, which has been targeting schools where more than half of the students qualify for free or reduced lunch.
In Maine, that is a significant portion of the student population.
Statewide, 46 percent of students qualify for the lunch program. At Portland High School, 53 percent of students meet the guidelines. At the George Mitchell School, that number is 72 percent.
Families that qualify for free lunches also qualify for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or food stamps. That’s only good for an average of $1.50 per person per meal, and benefits typically do not last a household an entire month.
Then there are the many Mainers, including those that only qualify for reduced-price lunch, floating just above the poverty rate, where there’s not as much aid available.
According to the advocacy group Feeding America, 40 percent of Mainers who qualify as food insecure make too much to receive food stamps.
That’s thousands of people not making enough to get by, but making too much to get help.
Add those two groups together, and you end up with a lot of hungry students, concerned about their rumbling stomachs when they should be thinking about math, English and science.
It’s the partnership with Good Shepherd, and the buying power that goes with it, that makes the school food pantries particularly appealing.
At the East End Community School in Portland, where 74 percent of the students qualify for free or reduced lunch, an informal program for getting snacks to students began after a parent noticed some of the kids going without.
Soon, the parents were spending about $75 a week. Now that the school is working with Good Shepherd, that amount can purchase food for more than two months.
That makes the pantries affordable. Good Shepherd’s $5,000 grant to the East End school is expected to last two years. In Waterville, organizers think the volunteer-run program will cost $4,000 annually.
Even in the absence of grants, schools should be able to support the food pantries. At Edward Little High School in Auburn, the owner of a local Dunkin’ Donuts provided $5,000 to start the pantry, and students are conducting raffles and other fundraising events to keep it going.
School-based food pantries are aimed at the poorest students. But pantries can be more than just charity.
As the pantries become more established, schools should add an educational component. Children raised on processed foods and takeout will grow up without the knowledge necessary to make cheap, nutritional meals at home. The pantries can be used to show students how to pick out ingredients and prepare meals.
Hunger makes it difficult for the students to learn, and sets them on a road to failure. That is made worse by a lack of nutritional know-how.
School-based food pantries address both issues and should be considered at all schools.