WATERVILLE — The food bank at George J. Mitchell School has been open only two weeks and already has served more than 35 families.
“We’re trying to make it clear to every family in the school — we can send food home, we can give you as much food as you need for as long as you need it, no questions asked,” said Jennifer Johnson, a parent who organized the pantry.
The school bank represents a growing trend around the state — supplying needy children and families where they are.
At the Mitchell elementary school, 72 percent of children get free or reduced lunches — or 404 of 557 students. The staff are aware of the great need for food, clothing and other basic necessities, and have been supplying children out of their own pockets.
Johnson, a parent and president of the school’s newly formed parent teacher organization, also recognized the need. She and others raised about $13,000 for the food pantry, which opened in a tiny room off a school corridor.
“We got half of a storage closet and made it our own,” Johnson said Thursday in the food bank.
The shelves were lined with pasta, cereal, juice, rice, peanut butter, canned blueberries, beans, soups, stews and other food.
“We’ve got potatoes up here, canned hams, chickens, and we’ve even got some crab meat that was donated,” Johnson said.
The food bank opened under the umbrella of the Greater Waterville Area Food Bank and buys food from the Good Shepherd Food Bank in Auburn.
At the beginning of 2013, there was one school food pantry in the state — at Portland High School, according to Clara Whitney, communications manager for Good Shepherd. Now there are 29, she said.
School food pantries serve a critical role by supplying children with food they may put in their backpacks to take home; parents also may come to the school to get food. Whitney said the extremely high level of need is “the new normal.”
“It’s really a sustained, high level of need,” she said.
The food pantry buys salvaged food at Good Shepherd at a very low price of 16 cents a pound, and gets produce and baked goods free of charge, according to Johnson. The food is delivered directly to the school every two weeks.
“We have a kind of general distribution on the last day of the school week, between 2 and 3 p.m., so parents can come,” Johnson said. “But at any time, if any kid says âI’m hungry; I don’t have any food at home,’ or the teachers can tell they need food, they will send a kid down (to the pantry) on a random week day and the guidance counselors are wonderful about going down there and getting them food to take home.”
Individuals and businesses were very generous in donating to the pantry, according to Johnson.
L.N. Violette Co. Inc., of Fairfield, donated materials and built the pantry shelves, Frito Lay donated energy drinks, water and packaged snacks, and a woman from Colorado who learned on Facebook of a local family’s needs for winter clothing bought new parkas, gloves and hats for the entire family, Johnson said.
The Greater Waterville Area Food Bank also is helping the school food pantry. When it gets more of a certain food delivered than it can use, it delivers it to the school pantry, she said.
“They’ve been an incredible partner. Yesterday, if you had come into the lobby, you would have seen crates of oranges in mesh bags. They were gone like that,” Johnson said, snapping her fingers.
The Greater Waterville Area Food Bank, located at Pleasant Street United Methodist Church, also is seeing an increased need in the city, according to food bank President Dave Dawson.
“From 2012 to 2013, we experienced a 25 percent increase in the number of requests for food,” Dawson said Thursday in an email.
Like the school pantry, the larger pantry is working to reach more people in need, by offering evening hours on the second and fourth Monday of the month, from 5:30 p.m. to 7 p.m.
“We anticipate that we will be able to reach clientele who may be working during our existing hours which will continue to be Monday through Thursday from 10 a.m. to noon,” Dawson said.
Volunteers are critical to the operation of the food bank, which also is raising money to buy a vehicle for transporting food. The Waterville Women’s Club Contemporary Group helps staff the Waterville food bank during the increased hours, according to Dawson.
Like Dawson, Marylou Butterfield, chairwoman of the Belgrade/Rome Special Needs Food Pantry, said volunteers are an integral part of the effort. The food pantry, open 22 years and located in the basement of the Belgrade Town Office, has between 30 and 40 volunteers.
She said the pantry is fortunate.
“We have very generous people in Belgrade and Rome and we’re very well taken care of,” she said.
In the last year or two, there has been a small increase in the number of people coming in weekly for food, Butterfield said.
The pantry serves about 40 families a month, she said.