Fueled by school breakfast and lunch, some central Maine students make it through most weeks knowing where they will get at least two of their daily meals.

But what happens when they are not in school? Sometimes that is just Saturday and Sunday. Other times, it includes long weekends or school vacations.

“Kids get breakfast and lunch at least (at school),” said Amanda Sparling, who runs the Lunch Box Program at Fayette Central School, “but on the weekend, that is a number of days they might be without food.” 

Fayette’s program, which is in its third year of providing supplemental food for students on the weekends, is part of the Fayette Baptist Church Food Bank.

“It is our responsibility as adults to care for these children,” Sparling said.

At the start of each school year, Fayette Central School, which has about 75 students in prekindergarten through fifth grade, sends home a letter to families inviting them to participate in the program. Those who wish to take part simply return the letter with their last name and the number of children in the family. They do not need to show any qualification — an acknowledgement of need is enough.

On Thursday afternoons, Sparling, with the help of volunteers, packages food for the “lunch boxes.” Friday mornings, she delivers the lunch boxes to the school for the students bring home to eat that weekend. 

“It is all of our responsibility as a community to look out for kids,” Sparling said. “They cannot advocate for themselves.”

Recent lunch box program offerings at the Fayette Baptist Church Food Pantry included fruit, sweet potatoes and nonperishable items The lunch box program has a small section of shelves at the pantry.

Teachers in Augusta schools identify students they suspect have “food insecurities,” said Alan Smith, executive director of the Augusta Food Bank, and families are offered assistance through a letter.

“A parent simply says or a teacher identifies, this child is in need. There is no barrier,” he said, noting the rest of the nonprofit’s programs have qualifiers to receive food.

The Augusta Food Bank fills 110 backpacks for city students each week, an increase from about 80 when it started about four years ago. Smith was not sure why there has been an increase in the usage. 

“I think mostly the school has learned how to better identify the kids in need,” he said.

Augusta’s “backpacks” come in plastic shopping bags, “not something highly recognizable,” Smith said, which students can carry home or empty into their own backpacks. 

“We try to diminish the stigma as much as possible,” he said.

The Maranacook Area Food Pantry at the Maranacook Community Middle School in Readfield sends food home in backpacks, a discreet way for food to go home.

“People think if they can’t feed their kids, their kids will be taken away,” said Mary Ellen Tracy, who runs the program, adding it does not track how many backpacks are being sent home.

“Any staff member in the school can send home a backpack with a student who seems to be in need — no questions asked,” she said. 

In 2015 in Winthrop, about 10 students were identified as not having enough to eat during the weekend, said JoEllen Cottrell, executive director of the Winthrop Food Pantry. The pantry was asked to help, and started compiling Kid Packs. 

“We got things we thought kids would like,” Cottrell said. 

Before those students had even started being served, she said, other schools expressed a need for the packs. In the first year the food pantry started the Kid Packs program, about 60 packs were sent home. During the 2018-19 school year, that number had increased to 70. Numbers are not yet available for the ongoing school year.

Currently, however, Winthrop Grade School is not participating in the Kid Packs program.

“I am talking to the school and hoping to get that program going again,” Cottrell said.

Winthrop families can continue to have the Kid Packs by collecting them at the pantry, she said, as any family can do during the summer.

 

FOOD PANTRY INVOLVEMENT

Fayette is not alone in offering such opportunities to keep students stomachs full over the weekend. Many food pantries supply schools for what are commonly called “backpack programs.”

The lunch box program has small section of shelves at the Fayette Baptist Church Food Pantry.

Good Shepherd Food Bank serves 15 schools as part of its BackPack Program, according to Jessica Donahue, marketing and communications manager for the food bank. It started in 2010 as a pilot program at one Portland school, Ocean Avenue Elementary.

“Many of our school pantries actually run backpack style programs,” Donahue said. “We really advocate for the school to employ what program works the best for them and their students.”

Good Shepherd started piloting other youth programs in 2012, and by 2013 had about 30 schools participating. Nearly 200 schools now participate statewide.

Along with its BackPack Program, GSFB youth programs include the School Pantry, the Kid’s Café and Summer Food Service.

The School Pantry is similar to BackPack, but includes more fresh produce and can be customized for individual families, according to Donahue. The Kid’s Café provides highly nutritious, kid-friendly snacks and prepared meals at community locations during after school hours, according to the Good Shepherd website. Summer Food Service is similar to Kid’s Cafe, but is offered during the summer months when school is not in session.

“Maine has incredible educators,” Donahue said, “and there’s a real understanding of how food insecurity disrupts children’s ability to engage positively in their classrooms.” 

She said GSFB found many teachers had been paying out of their own pockets to stock small food pantries at their schools. 

Donahue believes the increase in Good Shepherd’s participation in its youth programming is not only due to increases in need but due to the “thoughtfulness that our network of school partners has put in to outreach for the programs and for making sure participating is a stigma-free experience for children and their parents.”

All of the programs noted their food packs have healthy, kid-friendly food for students that cannot get squished and does not require refrigeration. For children who are alone during the weekend, preparations are kept simple.

“Families appreciate it immensely,” Smith said. “It eliminates stress for working parents if they are not home to make a meal.” 

Each of these pantries take donations for the programs. Members of the community can donate financially to the organization, and earmark it for the backpack program. Donations of food are also accepted by contacting the pantries.

 

NO MORE REDUCED, ONLY FREE LUNCH

While participation in backpack programs is increasing, the number of students in Maine being reported as qualified for free and reduced lunch has shown a “trend of decrease,” according to Kelli Deveaux, director of communications for the Maine Department of Education.

Deveaux said the department does not coordinate any backpack programs and does not know why the decreased trend is taking place.

“For many families even reduced prices can be a barrier to accessing school lunch for their children,” Deveaux said.

So while the number of students being reported is decreasing, the state is ensuring access is there for those who need it. Deveaux said the Department of Education has written into its biennial budget, which starts this school year, that it will no longer offer reduced-priced meals. Instead, students who would have qualified for reduced-priced meal will get free meals automatically.

“Already school lunch is a program underutilized in Maine,” Deveaux said. “This initiative will enable more students to get nutritious food to help them learn throughout the school day.”

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