BRUNSWICK — Starting this fall, elementary school teachers will be on the front line of an effort to prevent children from going hungry on weekends.
The BackPack Program, announced by the Mid Coast Hunger Prevention Program on Monday, will provide nearly 200 students in eight elementary schools with enough food to stay nourished on weekends throughout the school year.
The program will be available to MCHPP’s service areas in Brunswick, Bowdoin, Bowdoinham, Durham, Harpswell, Lisbon, Lisbon Falls and Topsham.
The program’s launch comes at a time when the Mid-Coast area has seen an increase in youth food insecurity and homelessness, with the percentage of students on free and reduced lunch programs at an all-time high.
Meredith Sciacca, a first-grade teacher at Coffin Elementary School, said she can tell in the first week of classes which students have gone hungry over the weekend.
“When students are hungry, it impacts them socially, it impacts them academically, it impacts their behavior, and as well as their health,” Sciacca said at a press conference organized by MCHPP. “Students who come to school hungry visit the nurse more often, they get sick more often and they miss school more often.”
Students in need may be covered on weekdays by the federally mandated free and reduced lunch program, but that help doesn’t extend to weekends or summers.
With the BackPack program, students will discretely receive a meal every Friday afternoon from their teachers, MCHPP Executive Director Karen Parker said. Each bag will contain sources of lean protein, whole grains, fruits and vegetables: perhaps a family serving of whole-wheat spaghetti, chunky vegetable spaghetti sauce, oatmeal pouches, canned tuna, fruit cups and fruit snack packs.
Unlike the free and reduced lunch program, teachers will be the ones to determine if a student is in need.
Sciacca said that process will begin by looking for hunger symptoms in students and then reaching out to their parents; the school will ultimately need their permission to move forward.
“I have a feeling there will be a lot of grateful parents out there,” she said.
MCHPP is purchasing the food at wholesale prices from Good Shepherd Food Bank, an Auburn-based organization that started its first BackPack program with the Junior League of Portland in 2009.
“Childhood hunger has become an increasingly alarming problem in Maine,” Kristen Miale, president of Good Shepherd Good Bank, said Monday. “Nearly one in four children in Maine live with food insecurity, which means that they don’t often know where their next meal is coming from.
“Childhood hunger is especially problematic because we recognize its role in actually perpetuating poverty,” Miale continued. “… When a child goes to school hungry, they’re being set up to fail before they’re even given the opportunity to thrive.”
The meals will cost MCHPP $250 per student annually, bringing MCHPP’s total cost to about $50,000 a school year.
MCHPP board member Ethan Minton said the program will be funded by donations and grants. MCHPP received a $5,000 grant in June from the Maine Women’s Giving Tree philanthropy group, Minton said, and it will also hold a fundraising event in September.
Depending on how funding progresses, he said, there could be room for expansion in the future.
“We are committed to this for the long run,” Minton said.