PORTLAND — Participation in a Portland after-school meal program has plummeted because the pandemic has made it difficult to get the meals to the students who need them at a time when the need is greater, organizers say.

Before the pandemic, the Portland school district was providing around 500 federally funded after-school meals a day for students, but that number is now down to about 100, Nutrition Director Jane McLucas said.

The meals were delivered to students taking part in programming through the city’s recreation department, Learning Works, Portland Community Squash and the Make It Happen! program at the Multicultural and Multilingual Center. With the pandemic restricting the number of students who can safely attend programs or shutting down programs completely, it’s harder to distribute the meals. Program providers don’t have the capability to deliver them to students and many working parents don’t have time to pick them up, said Anna Korsen, director of advocacy and community partnerships for Full Plates Full Potential, a coalition to help end child hunger.

The federally funded after-school Child and Adult Care Food Program, which Portland calls SuperSnacks, fills what can be a five-hour gap between school lunch and when students get home, McLucas said.

“There is a huge gap that needs to be filled,” she said.

Make your own pizza is one of the offerings of the after-school meal program in Portland. Other meals include yogurt parfaits, Caesar salads, cheese and crackers, and sandwiches. Courtesy / Full Plates Full Potential

In October 2018, according to the state Department of Education, a total of 20,944 meals were served and 1,077 Maine children per day were participating in the Child and Adult Care Food Program. By October 2019, due to a change in legislation, those numbers had grown to 39,132 meals reaching 2,041 children a day. This October, however, the numbers dropped to 19,757 meals served reaching 988 children a day.

Full Plates Full Potential says 40 schools in 16 school districts work with 18 community partners to provide food after school to more than 80,000 students.

Korsen said the increase between October 2018 and October 2019 can be attributed to a law that went into effect in September 2019 that mandated that all communities must start an after-school meal program if they more than 50% of their students are eligible for free and reduced school meals.

Unfortunately, she said, “due to the complications of the pandemic” getting those meals to students now is much harder.

“There is a collective concern across the state because we know the need is increasing and we are really trying to get meals to kids, but logistically there are so many challenges,” Korsen said.

Before the pandemic, students could only receive and eat the meals at their after-school site. This year the U.S. Department of Agriculture has allowed these meals to be picked up or delivered.

“We know the programs want to get these meals out to kids, but figuring out the access piece is a challenge,” Korsen said.

She hopes the Oakhurst Afterschool Meal Grant Program, a joint venture between Full Plates Full Potential and Oakhurst Dairy launched in February, will help increase the capacity of these program sites to offer students after school meals. Oakhurst has committed to donating $300,000 over the next three years to help the effort.

Whether it is through the school breakfast, school lunch or after school meal program, Korsen said it is critical students get the nutrition they need.”A hungry kid can’t concentrate, can’t learn. They are more likely to go to the nurse’s office complaining of a headache or stomachache due to hunger, are more likely to be absent and less likely to graduate,” Korsen said. “There are truly life-long impacts due to hunger.”

 

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