Students from Bath’s Hyde School on Oct. 8 pack items that will go to students with food insecurities, through the Brunswick-based Mid Coast Hunger Prevention Program. Alex Lear / The Forecaster

BRUNSWICK — While receiving a bag filled with food for the weekend might be considered a special treat among elementary level students, it can be a stigma in high school.

That’s something that the Mid Coast Hunger Prevention Program is addressing through changes this school year in its backpack program. Through that initiative, which MCHPP began in 2013, food is delivered to area schools so that students lacking nutrition during the weekend – when they’re not in school and don’t have access to the National School Lunch Program – have the food they need.

Volunteers pack white plastic bags each Tuesday at MCHPP’s food bank, and deliver them to the schools on Thursday. Initially focused on elementary schools, the program – originally named for the food placed in children’s backpacks, as opposed to the plastic bags – has expanded to the middle and high school levels.

“One of the problems in the backpack program previously was that we saw a fall off of usage after about third grade, because stigma became more and more a problem,” Sean Marlin, the program’s finance and development assistant, said in an interview Oct. 4. “… The problem with those white bags is, they’re very visible.”

Site coordinators have informed MCHPP that the younger students “feel very special” to receive the bags, Marlin said. “And then around third grade you stop feeling special, and you feel more targeted.”

Food is now being distributed at higher grade levels not through the bags, but rather to a nurse or social worker, so the student can access it more discreetly.

“We provide a trusted person at the school, a food resource,” Marlin said. “They basically run the program that best fits their population.”

By increasing the amount and kind of food students are able to take home, “we’re broadening the general population,” he said, and “other kids feel less stigmatized.”

“Because we’re providing more in-school food, we’re getting more accurate numbers of who we’re actually serving,” Marlin said. “We feel like in the past, we were underserving a lot of kids.”

“I don’t know if demand is higher, or whether we’re better meeting needs,” he said. “If the demand’s the same, but we’re just giving a product that is better satisfying people’s needs.”

The program last year had a head count among primary school students served of about 240, but MCHPP didn’t have a count of how many middle and high students were benefiting. With more accurate numbers in place, the program now feeds about 500 children across 27 schools and after-school programs in Brunswick, Harpswell, Topsham, Bowdoin, Bowdoinham, Durham, Lisbon, Lisbon Falls and Richmond.

But that may just be a fraction of the real need; the program reports more than 80,000 Maine children qualify for free or reduced lunch through the National School Lunch Program, of which more than 2,500 are eligible in the program’s service area.

“We still have a long way to go, if that is the true need,” MCHPP Executive Director Karen Parker said.

“You can’t meet the need until you know what the need is,” she added. “… That’s the important part of this year, is trying to assess that.”

The program purchases most of its food and spends about $40,000 each year for the backpack initiative. It offsets some of that cost through donations from corporate partners such as Shaw’s, Hannaford, Target, Walmart and Trader Joe’s, Marlin said.

“We’re pretty aggressive about grant writing, but the majority of the funding comes through individual donors,” he said.

Donations can be made at mchpp.org/donate, by emailing [email protected] or calling Marlin at 725-2716, ext. 301.

The three-meal-a-day backpack menu varies, with dinners including spaghetti, macaroni and cheese, turkey chili, and lunches that include canned tuna or chicken and tomato soup.

“Students take food home on the weekends if they choose, but also have access to good snacks available in their classroom daily, which is significant because if the student experiences food insecurity, it is not obvious to their peers,” said Darcy Baggett, a social worker at Harpswell Community School.

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