Thursday, December 5, 2013
BRUNSWICK — Programs to combat hunger will be more visible when Maine’s public schools open in a few weeks, part of a growing effort to get more food into the hands of hungry children and their families.
Portland High School assistant principal Kathie Marquis-Girard stands in the school's food pantry, which provides food items for students in need. The backpacks on the right allow the students to carry the food items without attracting undue attention.
John Ewing/staff photographer
The BackPack Program, which provides food for children for the weekend, will expand to include about 200 students attending elementary schools in midcoast.
John Ewing / Staff Photographer
LOCATIONS OF SCHOOL-BASED FOOD PANTRIES
• East End Community School, Portland
• Portland High School
• Wiscasset High School
• Edward Little High School, Auburn
• Indian Island School, Indian Island
• Southern Aroostook Community School, Dyer Brook
• Ashland District School, Ashland
• Whitefield Elementary School, Whitefield
Eight schools in Maine will open with food pantries on school grounds, compared to none a year ago. Another program that provides needy students and their families with food to eat on weekends and school vacations, called the BackPack Program, has also expanded, officials say.
“If we target the children, we can break that cycle of poverty and hunger,” said Clara McConnell Whitney, communications manager for Good Shepherd Food-Bank.
An estimated one in four children in Maine is considered “food insecure,” meaning without a regular and reliable source of food. That is the highest rate in New England and 19th highest nationwide, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
The Auburn-based nonprofit Good Shepherd Food-Bank, which supplies food for pantries and anti-hunger initiatives throughout the state, used a $25,000 grant to aggressively expand the Maine food pantry program, which was started at Portland High School last December.
Last school year, Good Shepherd Food-Bank’s school-based programs distributed nearly 70,000 meals to hungry children and their families. This year, the agency expects to more than double that figure to 200,000 meals to 1,250 students and their families through 39 schools.
The need for such anti-hunger programs is growing: More than 80,000 Maine children qualify for federally subsidized free or reduced-price meals at school. The school pantry and BackPack programs are aimed at filling in the gaps, to provide snacks during the day as well as food at night and on weekends at home. There is also a free meal program in the summer that operates in various locations around the state.
Katie Wallace, a parent volunteer at Portland’s East End Community School, started bringing in snacks after the first day she volunteered in her then-kindergartner’s class when she saw about six children who didn’t have anything to eat at snack time.
“For them to sit still for 15 or 20 minutes and watch their fellow students eat, it was excruciating. I couldn’t bear it,” said Wallace, a restaurant server and artist who wound up coordinating donated snacks for the children.
“Shame can be more debilitating than the lack of nutrition. This totally destigmatizes it,” she said.
She ran her volunteer snack program for more than two years before a grant from the Good Shepherd Food-Bank helped open a food pantry at the school to offer snacks to more students in need.
Wallace said hunger is a worse problem for younger children, who don’t know how to get food if it isn’t offered to them.
“One of the teachers told me that by about third grade, the students can figure out a way to get food – forage in their kitchens or find food – but kindergartners and first-graders don’t get it yet. They don’t know how to fend for themselves yet and they just show up empty-handed,” Wallace said.
Both the BackPack and School Pantry programs are modeled after programs run in other states by Feeding America, a national network of private food banks.
Nationwide, 25 food banks operated more than 400 School Pantry Program locations that served nearly 70,000 children in 2010, the most recent year for which data were available.
“We saw that this program was successful in other parts of the country,” Whitney said.
On Monday, Mid Coast Hunger Prevention Program announced it was partnering with Good Shepherd and would be expanding the Backpack Program further, providing food for about 200 students at eight elementary schools in the midcoast region.
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