NORWAY — Healthy eating promotes academic success, say local advocates of a new school-based food pantry for students and parents at Guy E. Rowe Elementary School.
With a soaring rate of students eligible for free or reduced meals at the elementary school and other Oxford Hills district schools, Rowe Elementary School nurse Heidi Darling and Norway General Assistance Director Shannon Moxcey decided it was time to do something about it.
“Research shows that children that are not receiving healthy meals at home have less academic success,” Darling said.
According to 2014-15 school year statistics from the state Department of Education, 72.3 percent of Rowe school students — nearly 350 kids — are eligible for free or reduced lunch program.
“I am concerned about those students that may not be getting enough food on weekends or evenings,” Darling, who will coordinate the food pantry, said.
Shannon Coffin, who manages the Child Hunger Programs team at Good Shepherd Food Bank (GSFB) in Auburn, said earlier this year both Darling and Moxcey individually contacted her around the same time to discuss the growing need.
“It was clear that there was both a need and a will to fill it, so we set to work bringing a group of community members together to talk about how we could get this program up and running,” Coffin said.
A number of local organizations quickly stepped up to offer their assistance, she added.
In January, Coffin, Darling, Moxcey and representatives from Rowe Elementary School, Oxford Hills Food Pantry, Healthy Oxford Hills and GSFB, which supplies food for pantries and anti-hunger initiatives throughout the state, met to discuss creating the school-based food pantry for Rowe school kids.
Although the state has a successful BackPack Program, which is run by GSFB and provides food to hundreds of school-age children statewide on weekends and vacations, local officials felt an in-school food pantry would better serve the needs of Rowe Elementary School students.
“I have experience volunteering with a (weekend backpack) program in New Hampshire, called End 68 Hours of Hunger, so we started out looking to be part of the BackPack Program, but the Good Shepard Food Bank felt that a food pantry would better meet the needs of our school because we have such a high rate of students that qualify for free and reduced lunch, one of the higher rates in the state,” said Darling. “They recommended this as a more efficient way to reach more students.”
GSFB launched a pilot partnership with the Portland High School Key Club in 2012 to open up Maine’s first school food pantry. More than 30 school-based food pantries in 13 counties now exist in Maine schools, according to the GSFB website.
The initial plan is to open the food pantry to students and their parents on a monthly or twice-monthly schedule, Darling said. Students will initially be referred to the pantry by teachers, guidance or school personnel.
Darling said the group is working with Healthy Oxford Hills to provide education to families about healthy food choices, grocery shopping on a budget and how to prepare nutritious meals for their families.
“They have been very willing to share information and resources with us throughout this process,” Darling said.
Oxford Hills Food Pantry, an affiliate of GSFB, agreed to sponsor the school pantry, which will include fresh produce and nonperishable items.
Coffin said her role in the establishment of the local school food pantry is to guide the group through program regulations, to partner with the food bank and to share best practices from other schools GSFB has worked with.
Other students’ needs
Moxcey said the group is looking at incorporating other district students and schools into a food pantry program in the future.
Statistics provided by the Good Shepard Food Bank and developed by the Maine Department of Education show that during the 2014-15 school year, 72.9 percent of Paris Elementary School students were eligible for free or reduced lunches; Waterford Elementary School, 75.7 percent; Agnes Gray School, 74.8 percent; Harrison Elementary School, 61.8 percent; Hebron Station School, 49.3 percent; Otisfield Community School, 52.2 percent; Oxford Elementary School, 73.3 percent; Oxford Hills Middle School, 61 percent and Oxford Hills Comprehensive High School, 58.4 percent.
“As you can tell from even a quick look at these numbers, Guy E. Rowe School is far from the only school in the district in need of this type of intervention for its students,” Coffin said. “But with so much support and energy within the community, at the school, and at Oxford Hills Food Pantry, who will be sponsoring the effort, it’s a great place to start.”
The concern prompted School Administrative District 17 to recently approve a free lunch and breakfast program for all students in pre-kindergarten through grade six through the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010, a federally funded program that encourages schools to ensure no student goes hungry. The district is eligible because it has more than 40 percent of its students who may receive benefits from Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program or Temporary Assistance to Needy Families programs.
Coffin said GSFB’s goal is to have child hunger interventions, such as the school pantry program, in every school where more than 70 percent of the students receive free and reduced lunch.
Coffin, who works with partners all over Maine on the School Pantry, BackPack, Kids Café and Summer Food Service Programs, said the goal is to increase accessibility to nutritious foods to children living with food insecurity outside of school so that they can come in healthy and ready to learn.
Hannaford Supermarkets, a longtime supporter of GSFB, agreed to match all Rowe School food pantry donations up to $3,000 during the 2015-16 school year.
Donations can be sent to: Good Shepherd Food Bank, P.O. Box 1807, Auburn, ME 04211 and should have Guy E. Rowe School Pantry written in the memo field or in a note included with the donation.
Funds can also be forwarded to the Oxford Hills Food Pantry, 16 Green St., Norway, ME 04268, designated for the Guy E. Rowe Elementary Food Pantry.