Tuesday, July 17, 2018

My Monthly Column – July 2018

No summer break for student hunger
By Xavier Botana

One of the Portland Public Schools’ goals is to teach the “Whole Student.” That means that beyond teaching academics, we help students develop other skills and habits needed for success in life. We look out for students’ physical and mental well being too, with the aid of school nurses and social workers – and by providing nutritious school meals each school day.

Now it’s summer, and school is out. That’s why this is an important time for us to come together as a community to ensure that our students’ needs are being met during this long break, especially when it comes to meals. Student hunger doesn’t take a vacation.

To help bridge the gap when schools are closed, the Portland Public Schools and Opportunity Alliance are again sponsoring summer meals sites across Portland this summer. Through this federally funded program, all children 18 years and younger may receive free meals on a first-come, first-serve basis, at any of the 15 sites.

The sites are open and some will continue as late as August 24. Get more specifics about sites and times online at: http://www.fns.usda.gov/summerfoodrocks
You can also text “Summer Meals” to 97779 or dial 2-1-1.

All youngsters are welcome – regardless of whether they eat school meals during the school year. All they need to do is show up to get nutritious breakfasts and lunches during the summer.

Because we want to make the most of every learning opportunity, our district and Opportunity Alliance also have worked with community partners to offer enrichment activities at meal sites.

At the Deering Oaks Park site, for example, partners offering activities and events include our city’s Recreation Department, Cultivating Community, Kids Movement Project and Children’s Museum & Theatre of Maine. Weekly event schedules are posted at the meal site in the park. Thank you to all our generous partners.

Too many Portland families experience food insecurity, so we’re also working year-round to make sure our district does more to utilize all the opportunities to feed students through the federal nutrition programs and the many community organizations focused on food security.

Last summer, the Portland Public Schools and the Cumberland County Food Security Council launched the Portland Public Schools Food Security Task Force. This coalition of organizations believes that food fuels learning and that all students have the right to nutritious food that enables them to attain their full potential.

Our schools are working to reduce food insecurity. At Riverton Elementary School – one of four Portland schools having more than 75 percent of students qualify for free or reduced-price meals – many families don’t always have enough to eat at home.

So Riverton launched a Backpack Food Program this past December, serving 60 families. The program, in which food is discreetly delivered to families in backpacks that students take home, is a collaboration between Riverton school staff and PTO, the Locker Project and other community volunteers. It has been so successful that it recently won a School Partner Award from the Good Shepherd Food Bank.

The Portland Public Schools is making other strides. Last year, we discontinued the practice of withholding meals from students with unpaid school meal balances and offering them an “alternative” meal.  The Portland Board of Public Education was among the first in Maine to take this step to prevent “shaming” of students. Several community benefactors have stepped in to erase meal debt at different schools this past year. We are always so grateful to those generous contributors.

This past spring, we successfully piloted a program to provide better nutrition to students in after-school settings and are expanding this program.

Partnerships with food pantries and other organizations can help improve food access for students on long breaks and weekends. The Food Security Task Force has mapped out which schools have those programs, and which schools should add them. This assessment will be available later this summer and will include recommendations for sustainable solutions to student hunger.

These recommendations will provide opportunities for others in the community who want to help. Our children are our future, so please join us in ensuring that all Portland students have the adequate, nutritious food they need to thrive, learn and succeed.