Like many school districts across Maine, RSU 71 provides a school food pantry program to ensure there are free food options for families to take home with them as an added service to those in need.
“The District has been feeding families in need since, well, forever,” said Carrie Robinson, Front Desk Secretary at Troy Howard Middle School (THMS) in Belfast.
While there is no data point in Maine that details just how many schools offer this type of service, it is abundantly clear that there are a wide range of efforts on all levels throughout Maine and often times they can be found at the local school.
“When our school buildings were closed last spring at the onset of the pandemic, our school nurses partnered with food services and transportation to send home weekly boxed meals and produce,” said Shannon Robbins, School Nurse at A Ames – Gladys Weymouth Elementary Schools in RSU 71. “In fact, we sent home over 22,000 pounds! Families shared with us how much it meant to have these necessities delivered to their homes when it felt too scary to shop in town.”
It’s worth noting that school food pantries and backpack programs are a volunteer effort at most schools and go above and beyond the complimentary school meals that students receive while learning at school and remotely. With the help of several USDA waivers during the pandemic, school nutrition programs have been allowed to be flexible and adaptive in the way school meals are served and most have been able to offer these services at no charge to families.
Suffice it to say, pantry and backpack programs are becoming an important addition to many school communities across Maine and at Troy Howard Middle School they have recently undergone an expansion to reach more families.
Although the district’s nurses, administrators, and guidance staff usually have a good idea of who needs help, they have found that it is still difficult to know if they’ve provided the service equitably.
“We really just never know who is in need,” explained Robyn Mailloux, THMS Nurse.
That is when they came up with the idea to offer the Community Caring Cart as a service to anyone who wants or needs something – they can just come pick it up. Instead of handing a backpack full of food and supplies to a specific student or families, now the cart is available in public areas at school that are easy for parents and students to just take what they need.
“Over the course of the year, I’ve been surprised at what has disappeared from the hallway shelf and who has been taking it,” said Mailloux. “You just don’t know what people’s stories are.”
In addition, there are bags available for people to donate items if they wish and the team is also working on some grab and go bags that are quick and easy to take.
“Anything taco related flies off the shelves, as does of course easy to make staples, mac and cheese and canned soups and fruits,” said Robinson. “Since we are at a middle school level many of our students have some basic cooking skills so they will grab things they can make for themselves. Any time we have fresh produce it goes well, the kids actually like fresh stuff!!!!”
“Lightweight, prepacked goods such as cereal, pasta or rice mixes, soups are very popular. We have also offered fresh produce from Maine farmers including potatoes, apples, carrots- families loved these,” adds Robbins.”
Knowing that food programs are a service provided in many community and schools throughout Maine, we asked the RSU 71 team if they have any advice for schools that are thinking about starting or expanding food pantry programs at their schools.
“I would remind any schools that are trying to do anything like this that you never really know who needs the help so get the word out every way you can,” offers Robinson.
“Partner with your community resources – we couldn’t do this without GBAM (Greater Belfast Area Ministerium Food Cupboard), GSFB (Good Shepard Food Bank), and our area boosters, such as Bell the Cat (a local restaurant) and individual donors,” said Robbins adding that when RSU 71 School Food Pantry began in 2019, they received a generous grant from the Sadie and Harry Davis Foundation that has enabled them to expand their support during the pandemic.
The Maine Department of Education would like to take a moment to thank the dedicated team at RSU 71 as well as the countless school staff members, volunteers, and community partners across Maine working tirelessly to provide services to the families in their communities through food programs and other similar efforts, especially throughout the past year. Your dedication and selflessness does not go unnoticed by the Department or the grateful people that benefit from your work.
Information for this article was provided by RSU 71 as part of the Maine DOE Maine Schools Sharing Success Campaign. The Maine Schools Sharing Success Campaign is an avenue for Maine schools to celebrate successes and share innovative ideas, practices, and models that can be adapted and easily implemented by other Maine schools. Stories are not an endorsement of specific materials, services, or practices and are not intended to promote learning programs that are of cost to students, families, or schools. To submit a story or an idea, email it to Rachel at firstname.lastname@example.org.