Experts: More students going home to empty cupboards

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LEWISTON — Each Friday afternoon as some Farwell Elementary School students get on the bus, they’re given snacks so they won’t go hungry over the weekend.

In the packs are individually wrapped cereals, crackers with peanut butter or cheese, granola bars, juice and fruit cups.

“They’re going home and there’s no food in the house,” Principal Althea Walker said. Some children have only crackers and juice for supper. “You drive by and see this great big, beautiful school. You think, ‘Naw, not at Farwell.’ It’s shocking to hear we have kids who are hungry.”

A lack of food in homes is not unique to Farwell or to Lewiston, according to experts, who say one in four Maine children suffers from hunger. Even though many eat breakfast and lunch at school, it’s a growing problem.

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“We see high needs of kids coming in, not getting enough. They’re hungry,” said Alisa Roman, nutrition director for the Lewiston School Department.

More students are being enrolled in a federal program that provides snacks for students in after-school programs, Roman said. “In January, we provided snacks to 2,624 individual students,” about half of Lewiston’s student population.

Good Shepherd Food-Bank partners with two Lewiston elementary schools, Montello and Longley, to provide food for weekend snack packs and school food pantries, Roman said. A new food pantry opened at Montello last week, she said.

Because of the high demand, more programs like that are in the works, said Shannon Coffin of Good Shepherd. “We’re working with schools statewide. We’re not done.”

Another new effort is a Lewiston Food Fund. “The goal is for principals and teachers to provide kids with snacks without using their own money,” Roman said. “We have $250 in it right now.” To boost donations, “we want to get the word out about it.”

At Farwell Elementary in the fall, teachers and administrators noticed more students “lying on their desks, tired, whining,” Walker said. “We started hearing the common thread: ‘There is no food’ at home. We started thinking, ‘We’ve got to do something to help these students.’”

The numbers aren’t high. Farwell has identified 20 of 360 students who have told teachers there’s no food at home. But Farwell is in a neighborhood that is considered middle class, better off than most other Lewiston schools. Farwell has lower percentages of students who qualify for free or reduced school meals.

Walker called around looking for help. Good Shepherd was already helping Longley and Montello schools and the federal program only provides food for students who stay after school, she said.

The school’s faculty and PTO started raising food and money, and started sending home Friday snack packs in November. Today, students who need the food count on it, Walker said.

On a recent Friday, buses were pulling away from the school when one bus stopped. A boy hopped off the bus, frantic. “He said, ‘Mrs. Walker, my bag is empty!’ I said, ‘Oh, no.’ I had given every last Cheerio we had.”

Staff found yogurt and cheese sticks for the boy. “His face was ecstatic and relieved,” Walker said. Another week, a different student told Walker, “When I get that snack pack, I make it last all weekend.”

The reason some households lack food “is not one thing, it’s a combination,” Walker said. “Parents losing their jobs, separations,” or incomes that don’t go far enough. “Something’s going crazy,” she said, adding that faculty bought presents during the holidays for more than 60 students who would not have had any otherwise. And in November, school bus driver Samuel Kelly bought winter jackets for three siblings when he noticed a kindergarten girl coming to school in an adult-sized sweatshirt instead of a jacket.

Since the snack pack effort began, kindergarten teacher Cassie Gerard said she worries less about some of her students. “I don’t know what’s going on at home, but I know enough to stress and worry about it on the weekends.”

Gerard stocks her classroom cupboards with food for students who need it. “It makes me sad to know there are kids lacking food, such a basic thing we take for granted.”

Before the snack pack program, education technician Jean Coolidge said some students didn’t want to go home on Fridays because there was no food. “They said to me, ‘I have four days off. What am I going to do?’”

Roman, Lewiston’s nutrition director, said the district struggles with the dilemma that if it provides too many services, some parents will do less.

But the fact is that some students are hungry, she said. And the food the school sends home isn’t a lot. “We’re not talking about four-course meals.”

bwashuk@sunjournal.com

Good Shepherd: Child hunger a statewide problem

AUBURN — One in every four children in Maine suffers from hunger, Good Shepherd Food-Bank President Kristen Miale said.

“Teachers are the ones on the front lines seeing the effects,” Miale said. “Have you ever been with a hungry 5-year-old?”

The child hunger problem is getting worse, despite programs, Miale said. “Our food pantry partners say 10 to 15 years ago we saw families coming in between jobs needing temporary help. Now the need is chronic. We’re seeing the same families each week.”

Many families are on food stamps, “but it’s not enough to make ends meet,” she said. With winter heating costs, the money runs out, she said, adding that 35 percent of people who go to food pantries earn too much to get food stamps.

A family of three with a $23,000 annual income doesn’t qualify for food stamps, she said. “Try meeting basic costs on that income.”

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