HARTLAND — On a typical school day at Hartland Consolidated School, elementary-level students eat two of their three daily meals and an afternoon fruit snack.
Free breakfast is served to everyone and varies day to day. Offerings include cereal, toast, muffins, milk, apples and oranges.
Lunch might be black beans and rice, and in the afternoon students get a fruit snack of melon, apple or kiwi, which the school is able to provide through a grant from the state.
When school is not in session, though, it may be hard for students to get the same nutrition, principal Denise Kimball said.
“I think for a lot of families, it’s a struggle. Fresh fruit is expensive, especially during the winter, and I don’t think children have the same opportunities to have those fruits when school is not in session,” she said.
During the weeklong February vacation, which starts today, a local apple orchard and an area health clinic are working with the Hartland school to send fruit, vegetables and other healthy food home. Meanwhile, other area schools are working on similar programs to address not only poverty rates, but the importance of eating healthfully across income levels.
Statewide, 46 percent of students qualify for free or reduced-cost lunch, according to the Department of Education. At the Hartland school, that number is around 80 percent, said Kimball.
“Having kids home for a week can be a challenge to some familiy’s budgets. Yet over vacation time, kids still need to eat breakfast, lunch and dinner,” said Trudy Richmond, director of clinical operations at Sebasticook Family Doctors in Newport.
Last spring, Richmond and others at the federally funded health clinic started researching ways for children to get access to healthy food when school is not in session. She said a number of area schools have developed what many call “snack pack” programs, which send children home with snacks over the weekend, school vacations or summer break.
With the help of Cynthia Currier, a behavioral health assistant at the clinic, Richmond approached Newport-based Regional School Unit 19 about starting their own snack-pack program at the Hartland school.
“I thought it was a great idea. I haven’t really heard a lot back yet, but I know there was a lot of excitement from families,” said Dave Leighton, Director of Child Nutrition for the school district.
The clinic, along with business donors from nearby communities, collected enough food to put together two shopping bags worth of groceries for every kindergarten and first-grade student, about 62 students.
“There is food for every meal — so cereal, peanut butter and jelly, soup, bread, crackers and rice,” Richmond said.
Apple orchard expands the idea
A local apple orchard that agreed to donate 3-pound bags of apples for every student liked the idea so much that it decided to donate apples to another school as well.
On Friday, North Star Orchards in Madison delivered 840 pounds of Red Delicious apples to Madison Elementary School.
“It’s really just about promoting healthy eating,” said Judy Dimock, who owns and helps run the orchard along with her husband and their two children. “Cynthia approached me with the idea, and it sounded great. Madison is our local school district, so I figured why not support them as well and send the kids home with a treat for February break.”
The Madison-based school district, which also recently received a federal award recognizing its school nutrition program, has been a consistent supporter of buying locally grown apples from the orchard, Dimock said.
Principal Scott Mitchell said the fruit was a wonderful treat for the 275 children at Madison Elementary School, who got to take them home. Three-quarters of the students at that school qualify for free or reduced lunch, according to the Department of Education.
Other districts weigh in
The Hartland and Madison schools are not the only ones to send their children home with healthy food.
In Skowhegan-based School Administrative District 54, first-graders at the Bloomfield School go home with a snack every weekend, principal Jean Pillsbury said.
The school has received a grant from the New Balance Foundation that has made their Healthy Kid Pack program possible for the last three years. Sometimes the children go home with a single-serving snack, and sometimes they are given extra to share with their families. On Friday they went home with soup fixings including carrots, garlic and a recipe to make soup over the February break, Pillsbury said.
Pillsbury is also principal at North Elementary in Skowhegan, where she said kindergartners go home with a Kid Pack every weekend. Sometimes it includes ideas for healthy eating on a budget or a children’s book to read, she said.
Depending on the funds left at the end of the school year, Pillsbury said that sometimes they send children home with supplies for the summer. The Skowhegan Community Center also provides free breakfast and lunch Monday through Friday during the summer, and transportation is available through the New Balance Foundation’s Move More Kids program, she said.
Pillsbury said the reasons for starting the Healthy Kid Pack program have changed, but the goals remain the same. About 10 years ago, she said, the school board came up with the idea after one board member read an article about a school in the West that was sending food home with children who didn’t have enough to eat over the weekend.
At that time, the poverty rate in the Skowhegan schools was about 50 percent and it sounded like a good idea, Pillsbury said. Since then the rate has grown, and about 76 percent of children now qualify for free or reduced-cost lunch, she said.
“Certainly it is still one of our hopes to get that little bit of extra to families that need it, but more importantly, we have come to realize that nutrition is important for families of all income levels,” she said. “We can all do better with nutrition, physical activity and reading in the home.”
For confidentiality reasons, a pack goes home with every student, and not just those whose family income falls below a certain level, she said.
The district recently expanded the program to Mill Stream Elementary School in Norridgewock, and there is also a program at the Canaan Elementary School, Pillsbury said. Those programs are also made possible through funds from the New Balance Foundation.
Funding and program expansion
“The great thing is that this doesn’t come from taxpayer money. It is all funded primarily outside the school budget,” said Leighton, who oversees the nutrition of eight schools and 2,300 students in the Hartland-based district.
He said the district is planning another snack pack for the April vacation and that it is looking into grants to continue the program next year at the Hartland school and possibly other schools in the district.
Kimball said she would like to see the program run during the school’s three major school vacations — at Christmas, in February and in April.
“Kids love vacation and staff love vacation. Everybody needs that break, but unfortunately we live in an area where free and reduced (-price meal) numbers are high. Kids are hungry, and these families do rely on school breakfast and lunch for nutrition. We want to try and do anything we can do to give them a boost over the break,” Leighton said.
Rachel Ohm — 612-2368