ELLSWORTH — Most students look forward to weekends and to vacations — a break from classes, a chance to sleep in, hang with friends and have fun.
But for students who are food insecure — defined as lacking reliable access to a sufficient quantity of affordable, nutritious food — those can be scary times. What will they eat? Will there be enough to eat?
“On Friday when some kids leave school, they’re facing some questionable food access,” said Tracy Shaffer.
A group of local residents including Shaffer is working to help alleviate those concerns for students at Ellsworth Elementary Middle School.
Everybody Eats!, best known for offering free meals on Monday at St. Dunstan’s Episcopal Church, partnered with the Ellsworth School Department for a pilot program in the spring of 2015 to send food home in the backpacks of students deemed to be in need.
The program was a success and was continued in the fall, and has been going on throughout the school year. Enrollment has grown from 13 children in the spring to 21 this school year.
The program works like this: on Tuesday mornings, volunteers with Everybody Eats! gather at the Community of Christ Church on State Street in Ellsworth. There, they pack plastic bags filled with shelf-stable food to help get the students and their families through the weekend.
They rotate through four different menus that were developed in consultation with school staff, including Food Services Director Ray Daily. They have also used information and guidance from the Good Shepherd Food Bank.
One menu includes the following items: a box of spaghetti, a can of pasta sauce, one large can of chicken, a jar of mayonnaise, two pita bread thins or bagels, four pouches of oatmeal, two fruit cups and two pieces of fresh fruit.
Once packed, the bags are taken to the school where they are stored in refrigeration until Thursday. Then, they are either discreetly given to students at school or delivered to the families. Thursday is the chosen delivery date so that if school is canceled or a student is sick on Friday, the food will be on hand.
“It really is a help to them,” said School Nurse Laura Rudolph, of what the weekend food program means to students and their families. “It gives them the extra food over the weekend for that child.”
The volunteers from Everybody Eats! and others who participate in getting the food ready for the school do not know who the children are that benefit from the program, due to confidentiality regulations. They do know their work is appreciated, however.
A survey was sent out to program participants in the spring as the pilot program was taking place to find out what people thought of it. Comments were 90-100 percent positive.
“I love getting the food,” one student wrote. “It helps my family.”
Superintendent Dan Higgins said he wished it were not necessary to have a program to help food insecure students, but given that food insecurity is a reality students are facing he is glad it exists.
“Students who come to school hungry — they’re not able to focus on schoolwork,” he said.
Organizers have assembled special boxes around holidays and vacations, with more food in them than usual to get students and their families through those times. There are also plans to use donations and grant money to come up with boxes heavy on shelf-stable items — peanut butter and canned chicken and tuna, for example — to get them through the summer months.