“John’s attitude is contagious,” said Rusty Atwood, board chairman of the Maine Children’s Alliance, introducing John Woods, who received a 2015 Giraffe Award at a wonderful Children’s Alliance event in Lewiston on Oct. 27. I can only hope Rusty’s comment is true, because John needs our help to achieve his ambitious goal — ending child hunger in Maine.
The Giraffe Awards are given to those who “stick their necks out” for children.
In 2014, John stuck his neck out by co-founding Full Plates, Full Potential to engage communities and schools, business leaders, nonprofits, and you and me, to find solutions to childhood hunger through policy, education, research and community development. John’s had much success already, but we’ve still got a long way to go to end child hunger in our state.
What I really liked about John’s talk was his certainty that Maine can be the first state to end child hunger. It’s nice to be known for our lobster, lighthouses and beautiful state, but wouldn’t it be so much better to be known as the first state in which every child is fed and nurtured?
Lest you think this goal is unattainable, let me inform you that “only” 87,000 kids in Maine suffer from food insecurity. I use the word “only” because the numbers are so much greater in other states, with Texas in the No. 1 position with 1.6 million hungry kids.
Among his group’s many initiatives is building a network to make sure all hungry kids are registered for school meals, including throughout the summer. This year, about 63,000 out of the eligible 87,000 Maine students registered for food assistance. If we could register those additional 24,000 hungry students, Maine would receive an additional $50 million in federal funds to feed them.
I was shocked when John told us that 150 children are food-insecure in his town of Cape Elizabeth, one of Maine’s wealthiest communities.
The issues are complex, and the problems are often caused by death, divorce, loss of employment and other sources of financial stress. Once that downward spiral begins, shame stops some families from reaching out for help.
John’s personal story is compelling, too. His dad died at the age of 42. His mom, for her family of five, had to reach out for help, which came from many family members including his grandmother. Eventually, however, John’s family had to seek public assistance.
When John and his wife moved to Maine in 2003, he wanted to put his personal experiences and corporate and food service experience to good use. And he has.
John told us a story about a school where hungry kids were reluctant to sign up for school meals because they had to go to the dining room when they got to school while their friends went to classrooms or outside to play. That embarrassed them.
He looked for a way to resolve that problem, settling on a system that delivers breakfast food to each classroom, available to all kids in that school. When the effort was stymied by the lack of mobile trays to deliver the food, John got a donation of carts from Hannaford. I love that creativity, that refusal to give up.
The American Academy of Pediatrics tell us, “After multiple risk factors are considered, children who live in households that are food insecure, even at the lowest levels, are likely to be sick more often, recover from illness more slowly, and be hospitalized more frequently. Lack of adequate healthy food can impair a child’s ability to concentrate and perform well in school and is linked to higher levels of behavioral and emotional problems from preschool through adolescence. Food insecurity can affect children in any community, not only traditionally underserved ones.”
Yes, there are hungry children in your community, maybe even in your neighborhood.
I urge folks to check out Full Plates, Full Potential’s Facebook page, where you’ll see lots of important information. Last week, I learned that “in most areas of the state, childhood hunger is handled piecemeal by federal, state and local governments and various nonprofits. As a result, no single entity is held accountable for childhood hunger and children at risk of hunger. To address this gap, Full Plates Full Potential is launching a campaign across Maine.
“Through the Full Plates, Full Potential campaign, we are looking to work with the governor’s office, mayors and state, community, faith and private sector leaders to develop and implement measurable plans to end childhood hunger. These public-private partnerships focus on increasing participation in federal nutrition programs that ensure that kids have access to the food they need to thrive and succeed.”
Time to sign up.