It started with a simple act of kindness about five years ago.

Katie Wallace, a parent volunteer at Portland’s East End Community School, started bringing in extra snacks when she saw that a few kindergartners didn’t have anything to eat at snack time, while others ate around them. That snowballed into a food pantry at the school, then Portland designer and fellow Munjoy Hill neighbor Angela Adams came calling.

“I thought she just wanted to hear about it or write a check,” said Wallace. Instead, Adams encouraged Wallace and another parent helping her to think bigger, and set up a nonprofit to encourage donations.

So that’s just what they did, and today the 2-year-old Locker Project stocks food pantries at 14 schools, mostly in Portland and South Portland.

“In 2015, the word of mouth started spreading fast and we started getting calls like crazy. We started meeting with schools that were interested – and in some cases, desperate – for us to open a pantry,” said Executive Director Katie Brown.

School pantries, which frequently expand beyond food to include clothing and toiletries, have become increasingly common in recent years.

Katie Brown, executive director of The Locker Project, and volunteer Stephen Davis Phillips load boxes of food into the organization's van Wednesday. Jill Brady/Staff Photographer

Katie Brown, executive director of The Locker Project, and volunteer Stephen Davis Phillips load boxes of food into the organization’s van Wednesday. Jill Brady/Staff Photographer Jill Brady/Staff Photographe

Good Shepherd Food Bank, which partners with Locker Project and similar groups, now provides food to 5,000 children statewide through 130 community partners.

That doesn’t include the many schools where teachers, PTOs and parents run informal snack programs for hungry students – much like Wallace did at first at East End.

“Some schools just do this in a very low-key way,” said Shannon Coffin, who oversees child hunger programs for Good Shepherd. “It’s making a big impact. We’re very excited about that.”

Adams, nationally known for her home furnishings and textiles, said she read about Wallace and wanted to help.

“I thought, gosh, this is a single mom in my neighborhood who just took it on herself. I was totally inspired to help out in any way I could,” said Adams, who is vice president of the board of directors.

“You realize you can help a couple of kids, or one family, and have some exponential growth there,” Adams said. “It’s as simple as handing them a sandwich.”

In Maine, an estimated 15.5 percent of the population is food-insecure, mirroring the national rate of 15.4 percent in 2014, the last year for which data were available, according to Feeding America, a national nonprofit that operates a network of food banks.

That puts the state first among New England states for the number of people who are food-insecure, defined as those who have inadequate access to food because of lack of money or other resources.

The organization’s “Map the Meal Gap” study used data from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, 2014 American Community Survey, the Bureau of Labor Statistics and the 2001-2014 Current Population Survey on individuals in food-insecure households, in compiling its report.

The same study found that 23 percent of Maine children were food-insecure in 2014, higher than the national rate of 21 percent.

In Maine’s public schools, 47 percent of students qualify for free and reduced lunch, up from below 35 percent a decade ago, but a legislative task force report last year found that 20,000 of the 86,473 children who are eligible don’t take advantage of them, out of embarrassment or because they don’t want to give up non-classroom time to get and eat the food.

The consequences of child hunger range from lower academic performance in school to absenteeism and behavioral problems, the task force report found.

DEMAND ONLY GROWS

Brown said the Locker Project food pantries, mostly in Portland and South Portland, range from a few shelves in a closet at one school to an entire classroom at another school.

Brown says the group, which has a roughly $60,000 annual budget, has stopped adding new schools despite ongoing demand, until its budget increases.

Katie Brown, executive director of The Locker Project, and volunteer Stephen Davis Phillips load boxes of produce and bread that will be donated to local schools as part of the two-year-old Locker Project.

Katie Brown, executive director of The Locker Project, and volunteer Stephen Davis Phillips load boxes of produce and bread that will be donated to local schools as part of the two-year-old Locker Project. Jill Brady/Staff Photographer Photos by Jill Brady/Staff Photographer

The Locker Project is a bare-bones operation, with volunteers using a grant-funded van to pick up and drop off donations roughly every two weeks at each school. The Locker Project doesn’t have a storage facility yet, although Brown said that may come as the organization grows.

In addition to grants, the group raises private funds and has fundraisers. The Locker Project recently won an Entreverge award, which came with an electric guitar. Adams arranged for Lyle Lovett, a personal friend of hers, to autograph the guitar when he played at the L.L. Bean concert series this summer.

The guitar will now be auctioned off to raise money for the Locker Project, Brown said.

MAKING A DIFFERENCE

When the Locker Project was first forming, Adams donated one of her signature rugs for a raffle in exchange for a $10,000 donation to a charity of her choice – and she picked the Locker Project, providing the group with seed money.

“It’s one of those organizations that if we can just turn the dial a little bit, we can make a big difference,” she said. “It really doesn’t take that much.”

In Portland, the Locker Project stocks pantries at Bayside Learning Center; Deering High School; Lincoln and Lyman Moore middle schools; and East End, Hall, Presumpscot and Reiche elementary schools. In South Portland, it stocks pantries at South Portland High School, Memorial Middle School and Kaler Elementary School. It also provides food at the Center for Grieving Children in Portland, the Margaret Murphy Center for Children in Saco and The REAL School on Mackworth Island.