Caroline Bennett, a Volunteer In Service to America (VISTA) member of AmeriCorps joined the Maine Department of Education (DOE) Child Nutrition team in January 2021 to build capacity and resources related to alleviating food insecurity among Maine students, with a focus on school meal programs.
As Caroline’s one-year stay with the Maine DOE comes to a conclusion this month, we are celebrating the impact she has made as one of the first VISTA members to join our team. She is the first of a cohort that is focused on ending hunger in Maine by 2030.
Caroline’s projects supported the overall goal of improving access to healthy food, through the federal school meals programs. Her projects focused on three main areas:
- Determining barriers and best practices of increasing student participation in federal school meal programs by surveying both food service directors and parents. As a result of her work, a toolkit of information, tips, and social media templates has been created for school nutrition programs across the State to use. The toolkit can be found on the Maine DOE Student Eligibility & Applications webpage under the “Free and Reduced Applications” tab, then Resource Materials.
- Developing a foundation of resources to move towards all meals at no charge for Maine students. As a result of LD 1679, “An Act to Address Student Hunger through Expanding Access to Free School Meals,” she assisted with the cost analysis of the bill and collaborating with other partners such as Full Plates Full Potential.
- Creating a positive media campaign for completing the student meal benefit application. A toolkit was created to educate families on the importance of completing the confidential meal benefit application, including translated materials to help reach all Maine communities. Find the toolkit here.
Other focus areas included promoting the meal benefit application for families who are eligible for pandemic EBT benefits, and building resources for cultural diversity in school menus that can be used by school nutrition professionals. As a result of her work, 218 school districts that participate in the school meals programs have access to these resources, and 91,413 new pandemic EBT issuances were made.
Caroline’s work laid a great foundation for the Department’s future work to continue providing meals at no charge for public schools in School Year 2023. School districts are urged to educate families on the importance of completing the confidential meal benefit application as it informs key funding for schools, as well as connects families to important resources and benefits.
This important work will continue in future years as Child Nutrition looks to host another VISTA member in SY 2023.
Caroline’s future plans include attending the University of New England Master of Science in Applied Nutrition. We wish her the best in her future endeavors!
For further information contact the Maine DOE Child Nutrition Team.