GARDINER — Students need to be fed not only during school hours, but also on the weekend.

That’s the aim of a new program, Food for Thought, which has grown from the concerns of members of several churches in the greater Gardiner area.

The Rev. William Wade, of the Gardiner Free Methodist Church, said the group got together for the first time about six months ago.

“We’d been through the raising of funds and narrowing it down as to how we wanted to do this,” Wade said. “We contacted Good Shepherd’s Food Bank to see if we could buy some food from them and found out they’re already doing this type of thing in Portland. So we thought why are we trying to reinvent the wheel? We can just jump on board with what they’re doing, and that’s what happened.”

The group has decided to use the “backpack” model to get the food to the families. Organized through Good Shepherd’s Food Bank, the backpack program provides food on weekends to 240 southern Maine children.

Shannon Coffin, program manager for Good Shepherd, said one out of every four children in Maine are experiencing food insecurity, meaning they don’t always know where their next meal will come from, or if it will be enough.

“Our teachers and school nurses are finding that in too many instances, Monday morning comes and they are forced to compete against hunger for the attention of their students,” Coffin said. “More than 80,000 Maine children qualify for free or reduced price meals through the National School Lunch Program. These meals are the fuel they need to get them through the week. What happens to these children when they go home over the weekend?”

She said Good Shepherd’s backpack program provides children who are suffering the effects of chronic hunger with nutritious, easy-to-prepare food to eat during weekends and school vacations when those crucial school meals are unavailable.

The food bank’s goal is to provide nutritious food to the state’s most vulnerable youth during their most critical period of physical and mental development, she said. To that end, food bank aims to provide menu items that are both wholesome and kid-friendly.

“For just $250 a year per student, we are able to provide at least one source of grain, fruit, vegetable, and protein through a variety of staple meal items, breakfast foods, and healthy snacks,” Coffin said.

Wade said his group asked School Administrative District 11 staff for help in identifying the families who would benefit from the program. The district serves Gardiner, Pittston, Randolph and West Gardiner.

“The principals of the elementary school are talking with their teachers, identifying students have chronic hunger issues on Monday morning,” Wade said. “It’s pretty easy to tell the children who haven’t had food over the weekend.”

He said Food for Thought has been given enough support and donations to feed 40 children every weekend until school ends in June.

The food is delivered and stored at the Gardiner Free Methodist Church on the corner of Winter Street and Highland Avenue.

The food will be packed into gallon plastic bags Wednesdays or Thursdays — volunteers are needed to help with that, Wade said — and are delivered to the schools where the items will be discreetly packed into the backpacks to go home with the children that the principals and their chosen staff decide may have the greatest need.

His group is looking for people to adopt a child for $20 a month.

“That’s all it takes to feed a child each weekend in a month,” he said. “The amount of children we’re helping is one of the things we’d like to double in the next school year and we can’t do it without the community’s help.”

Wade said items that are in need include shelf-stable milk, which is regular milk in a package of six, and individual-size box cereal.

Anne Davis, of the Gardiner Public Library, said the library association will also include a children’s book in the packages of food.

Connie LaFlamme, a member of Food For Thought, thinks it’s a miracle that her group was able to launch the program in only six months.

“One of the things we hope to be successful in is writing grants,” LaFlamme said. “We’re not just putting a hand out there. We’re trying to write grants and Anne Davis, our librarian, has been very helpful with that.”

 

Mechele Cooper — 621-5663

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