SCARBOROUGH — About five years ago, School Nutrition Program Director Judith Campbell said at least one school administrator doubted there was a need for a food-distribution program Campbell wanted to establish.
This week, at least 32 families with 60 children will receive backpacks and boxes of non-perishable food items as part of the Scarborough School Nutrition Backpack Program that Campbell and members of Scarborough-based Project GRACE eventually set up and funded.
On Monday morning, a storage room at Wentworth Intermediate School was stuffed with cans of soup, fruits and vegetables; boxes of cereal and pasta; and a bin of backpacks and reusable grocery bags.
“Our girls know who needs help before anybody else,” Wentworth food service staffer Joanne Mills said about how the program reaches families in need throughout the school year.
Mills, Campbell and other district employees spent Monday loading backpacks and boxes for families with as many as seven children. Some food is delivered, some is picked up, and all information about recipients is closely guarded by Campbell and the staff.
Referrals come from teachers, social workers and other district sources, but Mills said a simple comment made by a student who did not get breakfast at home also sets a referral in motion.
At its inception, Campbell said, the program was funded by Project GRACE, whose acronym stands for Granting Resources and Assistance through Community Efforts. Backpacks were initially donated by L.L. Bean, and now often come from parents with children who have outgrown their own backpacks.
Food recipients can also be directed to Project GRACE for other forms of aid, including clothing and help paying heating bills.
Food donations are gathered from diverse sources including the Scarborough High School football team, district bus drivers making pickups along their routes and Kiwanis Club members, Campbell said.
Campbell and Mills said the intent is not to create holiday meals for families, but to provide the basic staples to get them through extended school vacations.
Stuffing backpacks and boxes is a rite of passage into school vacation breaks, with food sent home before Thanksgiving, holiday, winter and spring vacation breaks. Need often increases as winter sets in, Campbell said.
Smaller packages, including food left over from school meals, are also sent to homes on weekends, with supplies based on the knowledge that families may not have full-size ovens and refrigerators.
Campbell said need has remained constant over the years, but there is a recent twist she found especially distressing.
“I’m amazed by the number of single teens,” she said about students living on their own through a variety of circumstances.
Food and monetary donations to the program are always welcomed. Non-perishable food can be dropped off at Wentworth Intermediate School at 9 Wentworth Drive.
Checks can be sent to the Scarborough School Nutrition Backpack Program, care of the Scarborough School Department, P.O. Box 370, Scarborough, ME 04074-0370.
Wentworth Intermediate School food service staffer Joanne Mills, left, and Scarborough School Nutrition Program Director Judith Campbell prepare to pack boxes and backpacks with donated food to help student families eat during the holiday vacation. Food is distributed before school vacation breaks and sometimes on weekends to families in need.