HANCOCK — Members of the Hancock Board of Selectmen took time at their Dec. 16 meeting to recognize and listen to reports of community service efforts in the town, including work with the Hancock Volunteer Fire Department and efforts to combat food insecurity at Hancock Grammar School (HGS).
Board Chairman George Colwell presented Chief Chris Holmes with a certificate from the town that acknowledged all the hard work the department does and for being a 2020 recipient of the Spirit of America Award.
The Spirit of America Award, issued by the Spirit of America Foundation, an organization out of Augusta, honors volunteerism.
While presenting the certificate, Colwell said Holmes exemplifies “the most compassion of anyone.”
Holmes responded that the work his department accomplishes is “a team effort.”
Other Hancock County recipients of the Spirit of America Award include Gary Fortier of Ellsworth, Hugh Hooper of Franklin, Kasey Jordan of Lamoine, Lily Philbrook of Lamoine and Sullivan Fire/Rescue.
The selectmen also took time to listen to another community initiative, the HGS Backpack Program.
The program, organized in 2016 by the school’s nurse, Michelle Dupuis, addresses weekend hunger by sending eligible students home with a bag filled with two breakfasts, two lunches and snacks.
Dupuis presented information on the program to the selectmen and thanked the town for its support of the program.
She reported that food insecurity is prevalent in Maine, with 24 percent of children being food insecure, ranking the state highest in New England.
About 50 percent of HGS students qualify for the free and reduced lunch program and during the 2019-20 academic year, over 50 backpacks per week were going home to students.
“Children can’t learn if they’re hungry,” Dupuis said, noting that students exhibiting hunger symptoms will often come to her office. Symptoms include stomachaches, headaches, feeling tired and behavioral problems.
Additionally, Dupuis reported that children in food insecure homes are absent from school more frequently and are more prone to health conditions such as diabetes, depression and lung and heart issues.
The weekend meals, which are designed to be easily prepared in case parents are working, may include cereal, oatmeal, mac and cheese and peanut butter and jelly sandwiches.
In 2017, the program expanded to include vacation week food boxes for when school is closed during holiday breaks and in 2020, the Summer Food Box Program began, which provided families with food every two weeks from June to September.
The food boxes include a gallon of milk, meat, eggs, potatoes, cereal, sandwich meat and cheese. For Thanksgiving, recipients receive a whole turkey and ham.
Dupuis said the community has felt the impact of the pandemic, with about 26 families signed up for the Thanksgiving and Christmas boxes this year. This past summer, 16 families participated in the summer program. She said that due to the school’s hybrid learning model, the number of students taking backpacks home has decreased but the vacation food box program has seen an increase in need.
With the addition of the food boxes, Dupuis said the program costs about $15,000 per year, which is funded through grants and the generosity of the community.
Community assistance includes space, utilities, volunteers and student advocacy from HGS and the School Board, financial and volunteer support from the community and a 2017 grant from the Maine Community Foundation for the purchase of freezers and refrigerators.
Additionally, the program received a cash donation from the May 2020 Hancock County Food Drive, 200 pounds of fresh vegetables from the Healthy Acadia Farm Gleaning Initiative, 250 pounds of fresh apples from Johnston’s Orchard in Ellsworth and is part of the Good Shepherd Food Bank Buyer’s Club.
Other donations include Kelp Crunch Bars from Maine Sea Coast Sea Vegetables, frozen blueberries from Allen’s, dining to donate efforts planned by the Itty Bity Diner in Hancock and Judith Baker’s shortbread cookie campaign.
“We’ve had great community support,” Dupuis said.
Applications for the program are sent out at the beginning of the year and around the holidays, but families can sign up whenever.
“I’ve been [at HGS] so long, parents will call my office,” to sign up for the program, Dupuis said. She has been the school’s nurse for 19 years.
Colwell asked Dupuis if she could see a difference in students’ ability to learn and maintain relationships at school after enrolling in the program.
“Absolutely,” she answered, noting that the number of children coming to her needing help with hunger symptoms has decreased.
Selectman Ernie Butler commented that in the late 1970s he helped initiate a breakfast program for School Administrative District 76 after noticing children were going to school hungry.
“We found by doing that, it moved [students’] grades up. It made quite a difference in our school,” he said.
Dupuis said the school is prepared to provide food boxes every two weeks if HGS pivots to fully remote learning due to the pandemic. She said the program is cash strong, with enough funding to last the next one and a half to two years.