Backpacks bridge the gap: Brunswick-based program eases students' weekend hunger

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BRUNSWICK — It’s Tuesday evening, and the Mid Coast Hunger Prevention Program is a hive of activity as volunteers pack five-pound bags of food into red bins stacked in the back of a pickup truck. 

The food is destined for almost a dozen schools in Brunswick and neighboring towns. Before their classrooms empty on Friday, teachers will covertly stash the bags into the backpacks of students who face empty pantry shelves at home. 

More than 2,500 students in the group’s service area qualify to receive free or reduced meals at schools, providing a critical stopgap for families who aren’t able to put enough on the table.

But when school lets out Friday afternoon, the most at-risk students deal with the reality that their next meal might not be available until they come back on Monday.

“We’re trying to bridge that gap,” said Jamie Tatham, an MCHPP board member who has been a driver for the backpack program. 

Last year, Tatham approached schools in Brunswick, Regional School Unit 5 and School Administrative District 75 with the idea. The response was overwhelmingly positive, and MCHPP started providing food to 197 students in 11 elementary schools from Lisbon to Harpswell.

This year, it has expanded to middle schools, and now delivers food for about 250 kids, Tatham said. 

Cans of beans and vegetables, bags of rice, and snacks like fruit cups are packed into sealed white bags for each student. The package provides the building blocks for healthy meals from menus designed by the Good Shepherd Food Bank.

Each school identifies students at high risk of going hungry over the weekend and makes sure the food makes it home with them. 

“We try to keep the program as discreet and confidential as we can to relieve any stigma attributed to getting free food,” said Hannah Chatalbash, a program associate at MCHPP. 

The program is provided free to all the schools, Tatham explained. It costs about $250 a year per student to provide weekend meals.

Nearly 40 Harriet Beecher Stowe Elementary School students take part in the program, about 6 percent of the school’s population. It gives teachers some peace of mind that children they were most worried about won’t be going hungry over the weekend, Principal Jean Skorapa said. 

The program isn’t just a way to ease the burden on struggling families, it can also influence students’ academic performance.

“Hunger has a direct impact on student learning,” Skorapa said. “You can’t focus on learning and studies if your basic needs aren’t met.”

Peter L. McGuire can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 100 or pmcguire@theforecaster.net. Follow him on Twitter @mcguiremidcoast.

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Volunteers Jennifer Iacovelli and Nicky Roche, at the Mid Coast Hunger Prevention Program in Brunswick on Tuesday, Sept. 9, pack crates with bags full of food headed to hungry school children. 

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