Food, needless to say, is essential. It is crucial to the health and well-being of our community, particularly our youth community. The absence of nutrient-rich and well-balanced meals can negatively affect a student’s mood, mental health and learning ability. Over years Cumberland County has developed an extensive food security system to support the health of students across the county. It has been my honor this past year to volunteer with these organizations and explore the food support system in my community. But despite the importance of nutrition access, local food security work doesn’t attract many high schoolers – and that’s something I would like to change.

Delaney Donovan loads bread onto a Portland Public Schools bus at Wayside Food Programs on April 3, 2020. Wayside adapted to the pandemic by delivering weekly fresh food and nonperishable boxes to Portland Public Schools families. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

In the spring of 2021 I joined three other high school students in an internship offered by the Cumberland County Food Security Council and Food Fuels Learning. We worked together to develop and conduct a survey for students in Portland Public Schools to determine how satisfied students were with the school lunch program and what could be improved. We asked questions about participation; free and reduced-price lunch eligibility; satisfaction with flavors, and opinions on local, homemade and cultural foods. Our survey ended up receiving over 800 responses and, after analyzing the data, we presented it to the Food Security Council board and the public.

We found a concerning trend of decreasing participation in the school lunch program as students get older. Contributing factors included an increase in students eating off campus or bringing home lunch, and a decrease in satisfaction with the meals being served. When meeting with Portland Public Schools’ food service director, we learned about the countless regulations that school cafeterias have to follow and the innovative ways they are creating tasty meals considering limits on vegetables, salt and sugar, etc. I’m glad to know that U.S. Rep. Chellie Pingree is working on multiple school lunch-related bills (HR 4379 and HR 2896) that will help cafeterias access more local food and prepare higher-quality meals.

Following my internship, I discovered more opportunities to participate in food security work. Through the Food Security Council gleaning initiative, volunteers can harvest surplus for donation at various local farms. The produce then gets delivered to either food program distributors or food pantries in Cumberland County. Wayside Food Programs adapted to the pandemic by delivering weekly fresh food and nonperishable boxes to Portland Public Schools families. Volunteers took on routes and connected with families in need. The Locker Project also made modifications to their services during the pandemic. They switched indoor fresh food events to outdoor public locations and bagged produce and nonperishables for distribution.

I always looked forward to the foggy mornings on the farms around Portland. I made friendships with food advocates, farmers and goats. During a fresh-food event I had the opportunity to see the blueberries I had gleaned that morning being distributed to dozens of families. It was gratifying to see how these “fruits of labor” brought relief and joy to people in my community. I also enjoyed talking to many of these families who shared with me their life experiences and food stories.

Sadly, however, I noticed that I was often the only student volunteer in these events. To get more high schoolers involved in local food security work, I am working with Food Fuels Learning and other organizations to promote these volunteer venues. With increased youth involvement, we can strengthen the food security system for all students and families across the county.

This time is particularly important to food security, as students are returning to school. Many food security organizations are switching gears to more school-centered work and events. I encourage students to look out for volunteer opportunities and help improve food justice and food quality within our school community. As we know, to ensure a successful school year for all students, food is truly essential.

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