Gorham Middle School teacher Heather Whitaker oversees a school garden that provides fresh produce to the town’s food pantry. Robert Lowell/American Journal

GORHAM — A middle school teacher devoted to combating hunger among students hopes to land a $25,000 grant to further aid a student food backpack program and erect a greenhouse at the school.

Heather Whitaker, named Wednesday one of three finalists for Maine Teacher of the Year by the state Department of Education, oversees a school garden that supplies the Gorham Food Pantry with fresh produce. She co-founded the backpack program in Gorham and coordinates a team of volunteers to ensure students have food over weekends and vacations.

As school opens this week in Gorham, teacher Heather Whitaker has a middle school pantry stocked with food for the backpack program. Robert Lowell/American Journal

She is hoping to hear good news about a nationwide State Farm Neighborhood Assist grant for education, safety and community development projects.  With entries ranked by public voting, Gorham was 13th on a list of 200 at last look. Whitaker said the top 40 will each receive $25,000 and winners will be announced Sept. 25.

If Gorham is selected, she’d use some of the grant to acquire fresh fruit like apples for the backpack program, and she wants a greenhouse. “I could grow more food,” she said.

School resumed in Gorham Wednesday for kindergarten and grades 6 and 9; and Thursday for all other students. A food pantry inside the middle school was well stocked and ready to go.

“The first day of school we will send home food with students who we know need it,” said Whitaker, a middle school alternative education teacher who has taught in Gorham for 19 years. She was named Cumberland County Teacher of the Year for 2019.

Whitaker and Jennifer Baker, a social worker at Village Elementary School, launched Gorham’s backpack program two years ago. About 70 students participate in the program.

For weekends, grocery bags for the third year will be packed with food to be carried home in student backpacks. Food items include cans of vegetables, ravioli, fruit cups, tuna fish, macaroni and cheese, pancake mix and Granola bars. Whitaker said the program gives students options for breakfast, lunch and dinner, and also provides snacks for students each day.

Backpacks also can contain emergency toiletries. “A lot of high school kids ask for laundry soap,” Whitaker said.

Over the summer vacation, teachers and staff, under privacy concerns, are the only volunteers delivering cardboard boxes filled with food to homes of students in the program.

During the school year, backpack grocery bags are filled in the pantry at the middle school and delivered to the district’s other four schools. “Gorham Middle School is the hub,” Whitaker said.

The program has more than 50 volunteers, including Rich Obrey, who   delivers bins filled with food bags to the other schools.”Rich is a key volunteer,” Whitaker said.

Baker said fundraisers finance the program. She looks for grants,  accepts donations and has set up payroll deductions for staff who can select their own amounts.

Whitaker said they raised more than $40,000 in the first two years and $20,000 can sustain the program annually. She said sponsoring a child cost $225 a year.

Community contributors have included Hannaford, $2,500; Gorham Savings Bank, $1,000; and a Berlin City grant, $3,000.

For students to participate in the program, parents can reach out to schools and no one is screened.

Trent Whitaker, left, Sydney and Brennan Abramson, Maeve Whitaker, Abby Fiore and Ben Burtula display a sample of Gorham Middle School garden produce that is donated to the town’s food pantry. Courtesy photo

The middle school also has a fenced in garden area Whitaker started 15 years ago. Produce and flowers are in raised beds. She harvests the produce on Wednesday and it is donated to the Gorham Food Pantry. Half a ton of fresh vegetables are donated each year. Produce includes tomatoes, potatoes, egg plant, onion, squash and basil. “Flowers attract pollinators,” Whitaker said.

The school Maintenance Department helped students construct the vegetable and flower beds and assist with garden work. Other volunteers weed and mow grass.

She tells passers-by who are exercising “quit walking and come weed.”

Besides the backpack program, Whitaker said 21 % of the district’s students receive free or reduced priced meals in the lunch program in schools.

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