Students pass food items in a human chain down to Midcoast Hunger Prevention Program. (Photo courtesy of Jennifer Salko)

BRUNSWICK — For more than an hour, students from pre-kindergarten through eighth grade worked together passing can after can, box after box of nonperishable food, hand to hand, from St. John’s Catholic School to neighboring Midcoast Hunger Prevention Program.

This was a banner year for the school’s annual donation event, collecting 828 pounds of food just over the course of one week, more than 150 pounds above last year’s total.

“It’s a really good thing to do, it helps people who need food and are hungry,” said Fiona Sharp, a third grader and the school’s “principal for a day.”

“It makes them happy and you give them food so they’re not grumpy,” she said, adding, “We go to Catholic school so … we are taught to do the kind thing. It’s what Jesus would do.”

Robert Bowen, a fifth grader, sorted the food at the end of the line this year, a first in his six years participating in the event.

Students at St. John’s Catholic School pass a bottle of barbecue sauce in their annual human chain event to raise awareness for food insecurity in the community. (Photo courtesy of Jennifer Salko)

“It’s good to help the community,” he said, and as someone working with the food at the end, it felt “like I was doing something important.”

“It’s good to give food to the homeless and help them live better lives,” he said, noting a particular abundance of macaroni and cheese.

The school has been hosting the event for around 15 years, principal Shelly Wheeler said, and forms a human chain to help teach the students that every one of them is involved in helping the community.

“Many of our kids are very privileged,” she said, “and this gives them a sense of how much is needed… it’s important to teach them others need help.”

And there is a need. This year, Midcoast Hunger Prevention Program, a local soup kitchen and food pantry, has experienced an increase in visitors, serving more than 4,000 people in 1,500 visits to the food bank in March and April.

According to the Food Research and Action Center, between 2014 and 2016, more than 16% of Maine households struggled to put food on the table, and the coming summer months can be particularly hard for families when children are no longer receiving meals at school, increasing grocery bills at home.

“One in five kids in Maine is food insecure, and in the summertime, families are really struggling,” said Karen Parker, Executive Director of Midcoast Hunger Prevention Program. “The food chain pass is a favorite of the volunteers here. It makes us feel good that kids in our community are aware of some of the struggles of other community members and are trying to do something to help.”

The human chain event is one of the school’s largest donation pushes, but collections run throughout the year. This year, the school collected 2,332 pounds of food.

Students are also running a separate drive for paper products to donate to Midcoast Hunger and Tedford Housing, the area homeless shelter provider.

This year’s human chain event collected more than 800 pounds of food for Midcoast Hunger Prevention Program. (Photo courtesy of Jennifer Salko)

When the new chapel opened in January all the paper products (toilet paper, paper towels, tissues, etc.) were stolen within the first week.

“It was disappointing, but it’s people who need these things,” Wheeler said.

To help what had become a clear community need, the school launched “Can you spare a square?” as an eighth-grade service project and drive specifically for these items which are often overlooked in dry goods drives, Wheeler said. The goal is for a minimum of 93 roles, one per student, but they are hoping to exceed that, she said.

“Personal care items are so expensive,” Parker said, and “when people are making hard decisions in their family budget, anything helps. People are really grateful and relieved when we have toilet paper.” If that is taken care of, more money can go to other needs like “prescriptions, shoes for the children or rent,” she said.

The last donation push for paper products is Saturday 8 a.m. to noon at St. Charles Borromeo Catholic Church.

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