Brunswick program tackles growing food insecurity for youth
BRUNSWICK — Not all children look forward to the end of school.
For some, it can mean not having a safe place to be for hours at a time. It can also mean not knowing where or when they will have their next meal.
So starting this month, the Midcoast Hunger Prevention Program is expanding its Summer Food Service Program to make meals more accessible for area children and teenagers who face food insecurity.
MCHPP will celebrate its new summer meals location at Perryman Village near Cooks Corner on Friday at noon. The group also has locations at its main office at 84A Union St. and Marcia Buker School at 28 High St. in Richmond.
The summer program began June 17 and serves youth from Brunswick, Topsham, Harpswell, Bowdoin, Bowdoinham, Durham, Lisbon and Lisbon Falls.
The program's expansion comes during a time when youth hunger and homelessness are growing, with area school districts setting new records for the number of students on free or reduced lunches and students living in insecure situations.
For instance, the Brunswick School Department saw an all-time high of 26 homeless students in the 2012-2013 school year, up from the previous year's 23. There were six in the 2007-2008 school year.
"That's the highest number we've had since my tenure here," said Assistant Superintendent Greg Bartlett, who serves as the district's homeless liaison. "It has progressively gone up over time. I remember when I originally started 19 years ago and the number was four."
Bartlett said the homeless student figure doesn't necessarily mean that all of them lack a place to live, but they may be living in a situation that is considered educationally disruptive, according to the McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act, a landmark U.S. law passed in 1987.
The School Department also saw a larger percentage of students receiving free or reduced lunches: more than 32 percent during the 2012-2013 school year, higher than the previous year's 28 percent. That figure was just below 23 percent in the 2007-2008 school year.
In School Administrative District 75, health coordinator and homeless liaison Mary Booth said homelessness is a larger issue than ever.
She said the 2012-2013 school year brought a record of 75 students who either didn't have a place to live or lived in a place considered educationally disruptive, because it either involved two or more families living in a single-unit space or a family constantly moving.
Even more startling, Booth said, less than 30 percent of those students were at the high school level: 40 of them were elementary school students.
Those numbers are greater than the 45 students in the 2007-2008 school year, when 65 percent were in high school.
"The numbers are probably higher (for high school), but when you become a high-schooler or middle-schooler there's a different perception," she said.
Booth noted that SAD 75 is careful when reviewing applications for McKinney-Vento benefits, and that the larger number this year is not indicative of the district loosening its standards.
"We're very careful about finding out what the situations are and whether or not it fits the definition of the law," she said.
Donna Verhoeven is the outreach coordinator for the Merrymeeting Project, a program funded by McKinney-Vento grants that aids homeless youth. She said school can be the basic building block for children living in poverty when it comes to safety and security.
Verhoeven said teenagers and children – accompanied by family or not – can find themselves homeless for reasons including economics, family conflict, substance abuse, sexual orientation and mental health issues.
"When kids are in school they have a routine, a structure, just by the nature of where they have been," Verhoeven said. "They haven't been familiar with that structure. Since they have it, they realize it's the very thing they need."
To keep a child progressing through school and working towards a healthy life, she said those basic needs of safety and security must be maintained throughout the summer, or else the troubles of life might set them back.
"It's that lack of predictability that often causes them to make choices that they might have not made if they had other choices," Verhoeven said.
Working with around 35-40 teenagers and children a year, Verhoeven said she can often see their anxiety increase when the school year comes to a close and the answer to food and shelter is an unknown.
"The fear factor is just enormous," she said.
Even for the ones who receive food stamps, Verhoeven said it doesn't do them much good when they don't have a means to transport, store or cook the food they purchase.
She said that's why programs like MCHPP's Summer Food Service Program can help fill the gap and maintain a sense of structure for the area's struggling youth.
"Once we meet those safety and security needs, that will allow people to think about what they would like to be doing," Verhoeven said, "which allows for the growth of the person."
MCHPP's summer sites are three of 288 throughout the state, according to Maine Department of Education spokeswoman Samantha Warren.
"It's at an all-time high for number of sites and sponsors, so there is a summer feeding program for every county," Warren said.
Karen Parker, executive director of MCHPP, said her group will provide meals at each summer site based on data from the past, though it will adjust service depending on the volume of children and teenagers who attend.
Parker said MCHPP is looking for more volunteers this summer, in addition to foundation and internship support in the coming year for expansion. She said she knows the issue of youth hunger and homelessness is growing, which she hopes to address with the increased number of summer sites.
"It's real and it's in our community," Parker said. "If kids are well-fed through the summer, then they will be more ready to learn more about nutrition during the school year."