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Organization's 'We Can' food drive encourages students to help others

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Organization's 'We Can' food drive encourages students to help others

PORTLAND — With winter behind us, many Mainers probably assume the most dire needs of area food pantries have been met.

But that's what makes this a critical time for organizations that supply food for families in the greater Portland area. Donations to food pantries historically drop in the summer months, and parents who rely on subsidized school lunches to help nourish their children must stretch their food dollars even further during summer vacation.

As a community volunteer in Portland, Elisa Boxer-Cook witnessed the difference free summer lunches made for the children who received them.

"Without (those lunches), kids would be going hungry," Boxer-Cook said. "Their parents were so grateful this opportunity was there."

Boxer-Cook rallied members of the National Council of Jewish Women Southern Maine Section and together they created a campaign called We Can, which seeks food donations for Wayside Food Rescue through local schools and offers a list of free lunch sites for the summer.

In just two weeks, more than 700 pounds of food was collected by 10 participating schools that included Falmouth public schools and Friends School, also in Falmouth; Lincoln Middle School and Nathan Clifford Elementary School in Portland, and Cape Elizabeth High School, Boxer-Cook said. This week, students helped load a van with the food, which will be distributed to area food pantries by Wayside.

Some students and teachers came up with creative ideas to encourage donations, Boxer-Cook said. Cape Elizabeth created a Facebook page and pitted classes against each other to boost collection. In Falmouth, students opened the drive up to all the schools, contact Patty Weber said. They also asked Adam Shapiro, owner of Bernie's Place in West Falmouth, to set up a collection box in his restaurant. Shapiro went one step further, offering free coffee to patrons who brought in donations.

According to Wayside Food Rescue Director Tim Morse, the organization is the only food rescue program in Cumberland County that doesn't charge food pantries a stocking fee. Funded by the United Way, grants and corporate and private donations, the program regularly distributes food from more than 23 corporate donors and others, like We Can, to more than 35 Cumberland County agencies in amounts based on the number each organization serves.

With the tenuous economy, Morse said there has been a 35 percent increase in families from October 2008 to mid-February 2009, when demand seemed to level off for a while. Now, he said, he sees it "spiking once again."

While the need has increased, corporate donations have decreased – down about 50 percent in the last six months, Morse said.

"There is a huge need," he said. "Communities have been fantastic coming together; I'm very thankful for the communities."

Two months ago, Wayside started a successful mobile food pantry that offers food boxes, Morse said. The first day of the mobile pantry, it served more than 120 people from 30 families. Last weekend, volunteers planted a garden at 95 Middle Road in Cumberland to grow fresh vegetables for Wayside's soup kitchen and food rescue.

Boxer-Cook said the NCJW hopes to make the We Can drive an annual event. The national organization has a very active chapter in southern Maine, she said. With a mission that includes "striving for social justice by improving the quality of life for women, children and families," the southern Maine section of the NCJW has taken on many area service projects over the years.

When she watched students load the boxes into the truck, Boxer-Cook said she "felt so great."

"And I know the kids did, too, and that's going to stay with them," she said. "They will take this great feeling through their whole lives."

Peggy Roberts can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 125 or proberts@theforecaster.net.