Noel K. Gallagher, Staff Writer
[email protected]

A few years ago, parent volunteer Katie Wallace saw a hungry child in her daughter’s kindergarten class.

The next week, she was back with two dozen muffins and a crate of clementines, offering food to any child who didn’t have snacks from home.

“It was excruciating to witness the handful of children watch their friends eat while they went without,” Wallace said about what inspired her to create a snack pantry at East End Community School in Portland. “I only had to see that once.”

Today, that armful of food has become a cornucopia, providing snacks regularly to more than 100 needy students at school, and allowing 50 students to take home bags of food every week to feed their families.

When the food program started in 2010, Wallace, a waitress, paid for the food out of her own pocket, supplemented by donations from some of her regular customers who heard about what she was doing.

The school already provided free and reduced lunch to more than 80 percent of the students, and had a pilot program serving breakfast to all takers. A grant provided fresh fruit and vegetable snacks three days a week. So Wallace started providing snacks to the needy students the other two days a week.

She maintained the program for more than two years before a grant from the Good Shepherd Food Bank helped create an official food pantry at the school. As word spread, some people donated money directly to the school and a parent donated a refrigerator. Wallace now makes a weekly trek to the Good Shepherd Food Bank in Biddeford, loads up on food, and then spends hours stocking the shelves in the school pantry, packing up bags for students to take home and delivering the bags to students.

Wallace says she has been the student in many ways.

“When you take the time to just sit and be with children, and when you feed them, a funny thing happens; they start to trust you. And when they start to trust you, they start to tell you things,” Wallace said. What she learned, through their stories, was that her daughter’s best friend was homeless, that some students ate only at school, and that some only had one outfit to wear all week. And that was just in her daughter’s classroom.

“It haunts me to know there are 24 more rooms all filled with children and each (has) their own story,” Wallace said.

This week, she delivered 36 frozen turkeys to student families.

“Some people would think about it as charity, but it’s not. It’s about community,” Wallace said. “I know these people. Delivering food to families, it’s such an honor. Not everyone gets the opportunity to do this. I feel so lucky that I get this rich volunteer experience.”