Friday, June 12, 2020

RSU14 faces challenges in addressing student summer food insecurity

Jeanne Reilly, left, the Director of School Nutrition for RSU14
and David Boger, Windham Middle School kitchen manager,
prepare to give out food to families as part of the district's
last distribution of the school year for its backpack program
at Windham Middle School on June 9.
By Elizabeth Richards

RSU14 is in a tight spot when it comes to providing summer meals for students who are experiencing food insecurity. 

None of the school sites are eligible to provide free meals for all students, since they do not meet the benchmark of over 50 percent of students qualifying for free or reduced meals.

Since schools closed in March for on-site instruction, the district has been operating as an emergency food pantry through their backpack program said Jeanne Reilly, Director of School Nutrition for RSU14.  Initially, there was a lot of food they needed to be put to use, since school had closed so abruptly because of the COVID-19 crisis. 

“At first, they were fruits and vegetables that we had to either send home or throw away,” Reilly said. time went on, she said, funds from the backpack program were used to continue sending families home with a supply of groceries that included produce, milk, cheese and yogurt, as well as some of the traditional shelf stable foods typically provided by the backpack program.

Summer meals, however, pose a considerable challenge, she said.  Dundee Park, which has been a traditional summer meal site in years past, was not a viable option this year, said Reilly.

The district looked for other places, but no locations in Windham or Raymond qualified. 

“Right now, we just don’t have an area where we could feed all families for free,” Reilly said.

Although they can’t provide free meals through a designated site this year, the district is still committed to helping find solutions to food insecurity for students.

An end-of-school year update for families lists open meal sites in other school districts, including Westbrook, MSAD15, and the Lakes Region Schools.

According to Reilly, at an open meal site, children from anywhere can go to get a meal. 

She said that this summer the open meal sites will provide both a lunch and a breakfast to go for families, but the process is a bit different because of COVID-19 protocols and restrictions.

“It used to be that students had to be present and meals had to be consumed on site,” Reilly said. “This year, the parents have to be there to pick up and the meals cannot be consumed on site.”

As additional resources, Reilly said that food pantries in both Windham and Raymond will operate over the summer for families as well.

Windham residents can call the RSU14 food pantry for an appointment at 892-1931 and get food once per week, between the hours of 9 a.m. and 3 p.m. Monday through Thursday.

Raymond will offer a Summer Backpack Food Program at Jordan Small Middle School on Tuesdays from 1:30 to 3 p.m. where families can pick up a supply of shelf stable food, and possibly some produce.

The program also is working with St. Joseph’s College to potentially get produce from their gardens, Reilly said.

Families should also be made aware of the Pandemic EBT (P-EBT) benefit, Reilly said, which provides additional grocery funds to families who qualify for free and reduced meal prices.

If they previously may have qualified or think they may qualify now as a result of a job loss or an employee furlough, families should fill out the free/reduced meal application, she said.

This application can be filled out and submitted online, or families can contact Reilly by sending an email to for assistance. 

Although the P-EBT benefit is scheduled to expire at the end of June, there is legislation currently in front of the Maine Senate that could extend this through the summer when schools are closed, Reilly said.

Districts like RSU14 are in an awkward position, with not enough families eligible for free and reduced meals to qualify for programs that can help those in need, Reilly said.

But with some families in the area still in need of help, the school district has been searching for ways to be of assistance. 

“We’re left struggling with how to provide for those families in the best way possible,” she said.

Food insecurity has often been cited as one of the most important public health problems currently facing children in the United States. Numerous studies and previous surveys conducted from 2013-to 2019 reveal that food insecurity has negative impacts on the health of children.
In data collected in 2016 by the National Health Interview Study, there is a direct correlation between household food insecurity and significantly worse general health in children, including some acute and chronic health problems, and heightened emergency room hospital visits.

The study found that compared to rates in homes that are not food insecure, children in food-insecure households had rates of lifetime asthma diagnosis and depressive symptoms that were 19.1 percent and 27.9 percent higher, with rates of foregone medical care that were 179.8 percent higher, and rates of emergency department use that were 25.9 percent higher.

The organization No Kid Hungry estimates that because of the COVID-19 crisis and pandemic this year, as many as one in four children in the United States could face food insecurity issues.

In April, a national survey of mothers with young children commissioned by The Hamilton Project reported that the pandemic was responsible for significant food insecurity in America.

Survey results showed that 17.4 percent of mothers with children ages 12 and under reported that since the pandemic started, “the children in my household were not eating enough because we just couldn’t afford enough food.”

Of those mothers, 3.4 percent reported that it was often the case that their children were not eating enough due to a lack of resources since the coronavirus pandemic began.

That same survey revealed that food insecurity in households in America with children under the age of 18 has increased about 130 percent from 2018 to 2020. <

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