Thursday, December 12, 2013
By Noel K. Gallagher firstname.lastname@example.org
Programs to combat hunger will be expanding when Maine's public schools open in a few weeks, part of a growing effort to get more food in the hands of hungry children and their families.
The BackPack Program, which provides food for children for the weekend, will expand to include about 200 students attending elementary schools in Maine, including those in Chelsea and Whitefield.
Portland Press Herald photo by John Ewing
Eight schools in Maine, including Chelsea's and Whitefield's elementaries, will open with food pantries on school grounds, compared to none a year ago. Another program that provides needy students with food to eat on weekends and school vacations, called the BackPack Program, has also expanded, officials say.
"If we target the children, we can break that cycle of poverty and hunger," said Clara McConnell Whitney, communications manager for Good Shepherd Food Bank. An estimated one in four children in Maine are considered "food insecure," meaning they do not have a regular and reliable source of food. That is the highest number in all of New England and 19th highest nationwide, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
The Auburn-based nonprofit Good Shepherd Food Bank, which supplies food for pantries and anti-hunger initiatives throughout the state, used a $25,000 Morgan Stanley grant to aggressively expand the food pantry program, which began at Portland High School last December.
Last school year, Good Shepherd Food Bank's school-based programs distributed nearly 70,000 meals to hungry children and their families. This year, the agency expects to more than double that figure to 200,000 meals to 1,250 students at 39 schools.
The need for such anti-hunger programs is growing: More than 80,000 Maine children qualify for free or reduced-price meals at school. The school pantry and BackPack programs are aimed at filling in the gaps, to provide snacks during the day as well as food at night and on weekends at home. There is also a free meal program in the summer that operates in various locations around the state.
Chelsea and Whitefield elementary schools in Regional School Unit 2 will run fledgling food programs this year.
In Chelsea, school officials are launching a backpack program they hope will provide food for 15 students and their families each weekend throughout the school year. Diana McKenzie, who represents the town on the school board, said there is certainly a need to allow the program to grow.
"We thought we'd start with a modest number the first year to see if we could do the fundraising," she said.
It costs about $250 to provide a backpack each weekend for the entire school year. The school has raised enough through fundraisers and donations to cover about half of the $3,750 needed for the whole year. It needs to raise the rest by the end of November, McKenzie said.
Each backpack includes one meal for the whole family and snacks to last the child the whole weekend. The school, like others throughout the state, is working with the Good Shepherd Food Bank in Auburn. The school's local partner is the town's food bank.
Whitefield Elementary School Principal Josh McNaughton said his school opened a food pantry and began a backpack program at the end of last school year. The food pantry is for any student who has a need during the day, he said. Students in the backpack program, as in Chelsea, will be identified by teachers and staff. McNaughton said about five students were provided with weekend backpacks last year.
Whitefield is working with Good Shepherd and the Calvary Bible Baptist Church, which neighbors the school.
McNaughton said the programs are addressing an important need in his school. The backpack program has even expanded beyond weekends, he said.
"We've gone weeknights as well," McNaughton said. "It's really based on family need and what we have available."
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