PORTLAND — Childhood hunger has become such a pressing issue that the Portland Public Schools has formed a Food Security Task Force to better address the food needs of students and their families.

With the support of the Cumberland County Food Security Council, the School Department has created a five-step plan to better bridge the food security gap between what the schools can offer and what government programs and community-based groups are doing.

The issue is critical, according to Jim Hanna, executive director of the county- based group, because last school year more than half of students in Portland schools were eligible, based on family income, to receive a free lunch.

“We’ve seen an increasing need for school food pantries and food backpacks for students (to take home) on weekends and school vacations,” Hanna said. And that’s where the new Food Fuels Learning initiative can make a difference.

“We believe that all students at Portland Public Schools have the right to nutritious food that allows them to attain their full potential,” he said.

Under the Food Fuels Learning program, the School Department is trying to ensure that all students have access to “adequate, culturally relevant, nutritious food both at school and to supplement their diet beyond school,” Hannah said.

In addition, the department is expanding its school garden program to help every school in the city develop and maintain a successful growing space. The school system is also working to increase participation in federal meal programs and is providing schools with the tools they need to provide pertinent nutrition education, such as a Community Food Resource Guide available in eight languages.

In pursuit of these goals, the Food Security Task Force has created action groups to specifically address each of the categories outlined. It’s also now seeking volunteers interested in taking part in this work.

More information about this effort can be found on the Cumberland County Food Security Council’s website at www.ccfoodsecurity.org.

The action groups are open to “anyone who cares about childhood hunger and wants to make a difference in our community,” Hannah said.

While the action groups work toward implementing the paths recommended by the School Department’s Food Security Council, the county-based group will help by collecting data “and documenting ongoing challenges and progress,” he said.

Riverton Elementary School, which serves students in pre-K through grade 5, has been the site of two pilot projects under the Food Fuels Learning initiative. The hope now is that those programs can eventually be expanded to the other schools in the district.

Hanna said hunger isn’t just a problem for younger students, but students in middle school and high school, as well.

At Riverton, a backpack program designed to send food home with students over the weekend or during vacation was instituted this past winter and it was so successful that by February it was serving 60 families.

In addition, starting this fall, students at Riverton can now have breakfast in the classroom. Breakfast has been available to students in the past, but they had to get to school early and couldn’t participate in before-school activities on the playground if they wanted to eat.

Now, Hanna said with new carts funded by Full Plates/Full Potential, “breakfast is distributed in classrooms as the school day begins, so students can start their day of learning fueled with a nutritious meal.”

To help support the School Department’s efforts to better ensure students have access to good food, the Locker Project has also increased the number of fresh produce it distributes to families, Hanna said.

To help fund the Food Fuels Learning initiative, Hanna said the Cumberland County Food Security Council has sought out grants and the School Department has asked the Portland Education Foundation to create a designated account so that community members can make direct contributions in support of food security for students.

Kate Irish Collins can be reached at 710-2336 or [email protected]. Follow Kate on Twitter: @KIrishCollins.

With childhood hunger on the rise, the Portland Public Schools has stepped up to help bridge the food security gap with its new Food Fuels Learning initiative.

Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or to participate in the conversation. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.