WINDHAM – Since 2010, school officials in Windham and Raymond have been sending weekend meals home with needy elementary students. The program now helps 52 children, but organizers say there are more kids who are going without, and they want to reach them.
“We have a waiting list at each school,” said Regional School Unit 14’s school nutritionist Stephanie Joyce, who operates the program using donations from Hannaford supermarkets. “I know that if we had more funding to work with we could serve more kids.”
In an effort to further expand what is known as the RSU 14 backpacks program, which provides easy-to-prepare and easy-to-eat food to children each weekend of the school year, the district is seeking the public’s help in sponsoring children. For $200 per school year, area businesses, organizations and individuals can sponsor a student to make sure children don’t go hungry during the weekend.
The need is there, says Marge Govoni, an RSU 14 School Board member and one of several volunteers who gather monthly in the cafeteria of the Windham Primary School to sort and pack the 52 weekend “backpacks,” which are actually Hannaford bags packed with food.
“We’re really only giving to 52 kids out of over a thousand,” Govoni said. “And there’s much more than 52 who need it.”
According to another program volunteer, Windham parent Michelle Jordan, the program helps fill a gap in the lives of some local kids.
“You have some students who are getting free or reduced lunch Monday through Friday but this bridges the weekend for them,” Jordan said. “This provides breakfast, lunch and snack on Saturday and Sunday until they come back to school on Monday.”
UNUM and the women’s fellowship group at Windham Hill United Church of Christ have donated toward the program and organizers are hoping many more businesses and organizations follow suit.
“Hannaford, as gracious and kind as they are with their donation to this, can only support us to a certain point, so we’re looking for sponsors – businesses, organizations, individuals – in the community who would be willing to sponsor a student for the school year,” Govoni said.
Hannaford spokesman Eric Blom said the company donates food to several backpack programs in New England.
“Hunger is a significant problem in our communities, and forming community partnerships to fight hunger in Maine is really important to Hannaford,” Blom said. “Child nutrition is crucial. And anything we can do to help children access the nutritious food they need is obviously something Hannaford cares a lot about.”
While Hannaford provides much of the food used in the backpacks program at no cost, Govoni said not only could the district add more children to the program, but with additional cash donations from local sources they could also provide more food for the kids already receiving.
“Right now we’re giving the basics, but we know some kids are sharing their food with siblings,” Govoni said.
Joyce said the food is usually pre-packaged “and kid-friendly. We want students to be able to open it up and eat it themselves, because for some of these kids, it may be that mom and dad may not be home or some of these students may be homeless so they may not have access to a fridge or microwave, so we don’t really know. So we’re really trying to make stuff that anyone can eat it anywhere, anytime,” she said.
A total of 27 Windham students and 25 Raymond students now receive the weekend backpacks. Joyce said there is a “waiting list” at each elementary school in the district for children needing the food.
“I know that if we had more funding to work with we could serve more kids,” Joyce said.
Joyce started the program after hearing about similar programs around the country. She said students are chosen based on need. School officials such as the school nurse, social worker and teachers discuss with Joyce who could benefit from the weekend food supplies.
“It’s like a referral from the people who see the student all day,” Govoni said.
Govoni said distribution of the food to participating students is done discreetly on the Friday-afternoon bus ride so fellow students don’t tease the recipients. And the need is great, Govoni said.
“There are homeless in all of our schools,” she said, “and the number is much larger than most people realize.”