Eight of the 14 Lewiston Youth Advisory Council members attend an exhibit opening in February. Pictured from left: Katie Morin, Brea Mathieu, Keira Potvin, Julia Paquette, Ariana Vallee, Damon Dewitt, Olivia Deschenes and Hope Rubito. Buy this Photo

LEWISTON — Several members of the Lewiston Youth Advisory Council plan to be on hand later this week at St. Mary’s Nutrition Center, handing out healthy food to those in need.

It is a school day, so they will have to do it in shifts.

For their latest project, the Lewiston high school students have shifted their focus to food insecurity after spending the height of the pandemic raising mental health awareness.

The youth council teamed up with St. Mary’s Nutrition Center after learning about the extent of food insecurity and food access in Lewiston, including the statistic that one in five Maine children are food insecure, according to information from the city.

Dottie Perham-Whittier, Lewiston’s community relations coordinator and youth council adviser, said the group learned recently about local efforts to address access to healthy foods and has met with staff from both the St. Mary’s Nutrition Center and Good Food Council of L-A.

She said of particular interest to the council was the nutrition center’s food pantry, which together with community partners, serves about 550 families a week.

“Members of the (youth council) wanted to step up and try to make a difference,” she said.

The youth council, which dubbed the project “Community Connections … LYAC Fighting Food Insecurity,” is seeking donations and will be using some of its own funds to buy foods the nutrition center is not always able to provide. Perham-Whittier said the food is to include tomatoes, cassava leaves, plantains, bananas, oranges and eggs.

The youth council will have a table at the center from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. Friday, during its outdoor food distribution. The center is at 208 Bates St.

Youth council chairwoman Hope Rubito said food insecurity is prominent in Lewiston, and the council “sees that and we want to contribute in any way possible to help those in need.”

“Lewiston is our community, our home, and seeing our community members struggling with something like access to food is saddening and we’d like to combat that in any way we can,” Rubito said.

Sheri Blumenthal, manager of Community Programs at St. Mary’s Nutrition Center, said the organization is grateful for the partnership with the youth council, and for “their generosity and willingness to learn and share about food insecurity in our community.”

“Hunger has been a long-standing challenge in our city and across Maine, which ranks 12th in the nation for food insecurity, and was greatly compounded by the pandemic,” she said. “The St. Mary’s Food Pantry, part of the St. Mary’s Nutrition Center, works alongside partners to provide a stable and reliable means for people to supplement their weekly groceries amidst an increasingly uncertain landscape.

“We have made a strong commitment to increase the variety of fresh produce we offer regularly and to include more culturally preferred and desired foods. LYAC’s initiative will help us reach this goal.”

Youth council members said they plan to take shifts during the Friday distribution.

Member Olivia Deschenes said she feels strongly about the council’s newest initiative.

“In the time of COVID-19, (the youth council) can help relieve the demand for food and increase its access so I am absolutely ecstatic to be a part of this project,” Deschenes said.

Added Member Elissa Nadeau, “We decided to do this project because a lot of people are struggling during these times, and (the youth council) wanted to give back to our community.”

The Lewiston Youth Advisory Council, now in its 20th season, receives annual funding from the Lewiston Firefighters Association, its longtime sponsor.

The council spent much of the winter months, during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, working on mental health awareness for other young people. The council’s “Light in the Dark” photo series and awareness campaign featured reflections on how students were coping with isolation and the staggering changes the pandemic brought for young people.

A display of the photographs and words was presented in February at Rinck Advertising on Lisbon Street.

Those who would like to contribute to the food purchasing effort may send checks, payable to the Lewiston Youth Advisory Council, to: LYAC, c/o City Administrator’s Office, Lewiston City Hall, 27 Pine St., Lewiston, ME 04240.

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