Locations of school BackPack and food pantry programs

August 22, 2013

Maine food pantries go to school

The BackPack Program will expand serve about 200 children from eight elementary schools along the midcoast, and eight schools statewide will host food pantries.

By Noel K. Gallagher ngallagher@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

(Continued from page 1)

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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

click image to enlarge

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


• 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

Each backpack contains a protein, grain, fruit and vegetable, and the students know the menu ahead of time, according to Shannon Coffin, who oversees child hunger initiatives for Good Shepherd Food-Bank. Each backpack is limited to five pounds of food, so the youngest children can carry them home, she said.

“For so many of these kids, so little in their life is stable. We want them to know this is stable and (families) can plan their grocery shopping around it,” Coffin said. “When a family knows we’re giving them whole wheat pasta and a sauce, they know they can buy broccoli to stretch it.”

The first school pantry program in Maine was started at Portland High School by students in the Key Club, who approached Good Shepherd Food-Bank to create the pantry for fellow students – some of them homeless – who didn’t have enough to eat once they left school. In their initial effort, the students tried to raise the money and buy food themselves, but they weren’t able to sustain it.

“It was very unexpected for us” to launch the first school-based food pantry in the state, said Portland High math teacher Zarmina Hanifi, the adviser to the 120-member Key Club. “They are doing a great job.”

Employees at Good Shepherd trained the Key Club students on food safety, how to run a small food pantry and how to stretch their food dollars.

“It was really inspiring and just encouraging to see they had this idea first,” Whitney said.
Whitney said they monitored the Portland High pantry as a pilot case, to make sure it ran smoothly.

When it proved successful, the agency launched similar partnerships in other areas that have high rates of childhood hunger. One of the pantries was opened at East End Community School, where it replaced Wallace’s informal snack program.

For older students, a school pantry program can help them stay in school, Coffin said.

“It keeps teens from dropping out because they need to get jobs, or they need time to find social services, or they just need to eat,” she said.

By the end of last year, pantries were also operating at Indian Island School on Indian Island, Southern Aroostook Community School in Dyer Brook, Ashland District School in Ashland, Whitefield Elementary School in Whitefield and Wiscasset High School in Wiscasset.
In a few weeks, the newest food pantry will open at Edward Little High School in Auburn.

“One reason we’re excited about the school pantry model is it’s a way to reach families that have been traditionally difficult for the emergency food system to reach because they live in rural areas,” Whitney said. “It might be 20 miles to drive to the nearest food pantry, but their kids are going to school every day.”

Each school decides the best way to distribute the food, and the program is open to anyone. Teachers and guidance counselors often “just know” who needs help, Whitney said, whether the student is homeless, asks for food, or if a teacher notices the student doesn’t eat during the school day.

In some schools, teachers and guidance counselors work with needy students to distribute the food discreetly, to lessen the stigma.

In other schools, the monthly “drop-off” of food from Good Shepherd includes large amounts of fresh fruits and vegetables in addition to nonperishables, and the schools turn that drop-off into a farmer’s market-like experience for everyone to participate in – timed when parents are at the school to pick up their children.

Whitney said the organization is looking for funding to expand both the food pantry and BackPack programs further. In addition to major grants, smaller amounts can fund local efforts, Whitney said. For example, a local Dunkin’ Donuts franchise owner in the Auburn area provided the $5,000 needed to open the school food pantry at Edward Little High School.

Wallace said she thought the $5,000 grant to East End would sustain the program for about two years.

When she was buying snacks, it cost about $75 a week, she said. But working with Good Shepherd, $60 buys about two months’ worth of supplies for the school pantry.

“It’s been such a miracle,” she said. “Buying at cost, or by the pound, changed everything.”

Some of the school pantries in more rural areas got calls from residents asking if they could drop off canned goods in exchange for fresh produce, Coffin said.

“These people live so rurally, they don’t have access to fresh produce,” she said, adding that organizers told the callers to just come get the produce they needed without having to exchange it for canned goods.

“(The School Pantry program) really can change the health of a community,” she said.

Noel K. Gallagher can be contacted at 791-6387 or at:


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Today's poll: Food for weekends

Should more public schools offer programs to provide kids with food for weekends?



View Results