Ten students from Portland High School’s Key Club spent a recent afternoon at the Good Shepherd Food Bank. They filled boxes with granola, soup, soy milk and other items to stock the high school’s new food pantry.

The first of its kind in Maine, the pantry serves students who otherwise might go hungry. The pantry is being touted as a model for other schools in the state.

Portland High’s food pantry is one of many projects underway in the Portland Public Schools that help fill community needs. Students also are raising money for breast cancer education, collecting toiletries for Portland shelters, writing letters to veterans and doing far more projects than I can mention in this space (read more at blogs.portlandschools.org/superintendent/). All of these projects teach students how they can make a difference in the world.

The Portland High project began last year. Some students confided in staff members that they had no food for the weekends and vacation. (On school days, they ate the breakfasts and lunches provided by our meals program.) The Key Club was asked to help.

Club members and their adviser, Zarmina Hanifi, used their small budget to buy food at Trader Joe’s. They made food packages that were distributed by the school nurse and social workers, to protect the anonymity of those seeking help.

The Key Club could not afford to pay for food on an ongoing basis. So a Portland High senior who was a club officer investigated options. She connected the club with the Good Shepherd Food Bank.

This year, the food bank agreed to provide $5,000 worth of food to Portland High. That’s the equivalent of 28,000 meals.

“It is really an amazing help to us,” said Hanifi.

Students at Portland High painted a closet on the school’s second floor, near the guidance office. It houses the food pantry as well as coats and other warm clothing available to students who need them. Students at Portland Arts and Technology High School built shelves to hold boxes and canned goods.

Before the Thanksgiving break, Key Club members assembled 17 food packages. Those students needing help also can request food at other times. The social workers and school nurse provide food in backpacks so that students can take it home without others knowing about it.

“The need was more than we expected,” said Jake Katsiaficas, a Portland High senior and Key Club member.

“We definitely don’t think about it everyday when we come to school (after eating) a balanced breakfast,” said Chip Weber, also a senior and club member.

Earlier this month, Key Club members visited the Good Shepherd Food Bank to learn what type of foods are most nutritious, how long they can store food safely, how to choose foods that go together to make a meal and other aspects of running a food pantry. The students shopped for items that will go home in food packages before the December vacation.

Key Club members noted that Portland High is far from unique in having students experiencing food insecurity. The club will work with the food bank’s staff to compile a best practices guide to help other schools across Maine begin food pantries where the need exists.

Chip served until recently as Portland High’s student representative to the Portland Board of Public Education. “We all talk about test scores and raising test scores,” he said. “You can’t get that done til you’ve fed everyone.”

In this season of giving, I am so proud of all of our students for their compassion and efforts to help those in need.

Sidebar Elements

Portland Public Schools Superintendent Emmanuel Caulk writes this column monthly. He can be reached at [email protected]. Read his blog at blogs.portlandschools.org/superintendent/.

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