2015-01-30 / Front Page

Campaign will combat hidden hunger

Food for Thought backpack program launched to raise funds, awareness of hungry children
By Duke Harrington
Staff Writer

Helping to raise money for the new “Food for Thought” program at Community Outreach Services are, front row, from left, Andrea Brown and Michelle Low, and, back row, from left, Mark Jago, Sharon Binette, Lindsay Smith, and Dean Trondle. All but Brown are members of the Kennebunk chapter of Think LOCAL!, a business networking group. 
(Duke Harrington photo) Helping to raise money for the new “Food for Thought” program at Community Outreach Services are, front row, from left, Andrea Brown and Michelle Low, and, back row, from left, Mark Jago, Sharon Binette, Lindsay Smith, and Dean Trondle. All but Brown are members of the Kennebunk chapter of Think LOCAL!, a business networking group. (Duke Harrington photo) There’s a problem in the Kennebunks, one that is nearly as invisible as it is insidious.

It may be difficult to believe, but there are children in the area who go to bed hungry. Worse, they go to school hungry.

With that in mind, the Kennebunks chapter of community networking group Think LOCAL! is partnering with concerned parents under the auspices of Community Outreach Services to launch “Food for Thought,” a program that will confidentially send backpacks full of food home with schoolchildren who might otherwise go hunger during weekends and holidays, when they don’t have the school cafeteria to depend on.

The groups hope to raise $20,000 by March, which will give it the lead-time needed to order from the Good Shepherd Food Bank and begin filling backpacks at the start of the new school year. Although the plan is to eventually serve all schools in RSU 21, the program will begin at the Mildred L. Day Elementary School in Arundel, where the need is the greatest.

“The backpack program will be a godsend for many of our students,” said RSU 21 interim Superintendent Dr. Kevin Crowley, slated to return to his previous post in July as principal at Mildred Day School.

“While personal finances are challenging all year long, the struggle is even harsher during the winter as people have to make difficult decisions about heating their home or putting food on the table,” he said.

According to Karen Winton, who supervises the general assistance program in Kennebunk, 81 applications were submitted last year by people unable to meet basic living expenses.

Of those, 30 cases were approved, paying out nearly $10,000 that helped 60 individuals, many children. But, Winton stresses, while those numbers give some idea of the local need, overall, it really doesn’t say much about what people in her line of work refer to as “food insecurity” — the uncertainty over where one’s next meal may be coming from, or if it will come at all.

General assistance is often referred to as the financial aid of last resort, but food is generally one of the first places people under financial stress will cut back.

Instead, a better measure of need may be the number of children who qualify for free or reduced-price meals in the public school.

Those subsidies kick in for reduced price means at 185 percent of the federal poverty line, or an annual household income of $44,123 for a family of four. The same family would qualify for free school meals at 100 percent of the poverty guideline, or an annual income of $23,850.

Perhaps surprisingly, no fewer than 19 percent of students at any RSU 21 school qualify for meal subsidies, while nearly 35 percent need food assistance at the Mildred L. Day Elementary School in Arundel.

“There is no need along the coast, but you go just a few miles inland and there is a great need,” said Beth Jones, executive director of Community Outreach Services (COS).

Jones knows the local need better than most. She’s served on the COS board of directors almost since the nonprofit’s founding in 1990, including the last 15 at the head.

Launched as a food pantry created by the congregations of area churches, COS still partners with 10 local churches. It now provides fuel assistance and funding for other specific needs, such as eyeglasses, doling out $80,000 in aid last year to residents of Kennebunk, Kennebunkport and Arundel. However, it was presented with $100,000 in requests, depleting the agency’s reserves.

Making things difficult for the organization is that relative affluence along the coastal region. Without a neighborhood where median income is no more than 50 percent of the federal poverty level, partly because homes are generally so spread out in the area, COS has not been able to secure federal grants. Almost all of the money it uses to fulfill its mission comes from local fundraising.

“Most communities along the coast are in the same boat we are in,” said Jones. “We don’t qualify for the federal funding, and people are spread out, so you don’t have a poverty pocket, or ghetto, as you will.”

Without an area that can be declared in “slum and blight,” grant money is hard to come by. But hungry children are not just those who live in extreme poverty.

“People also forget oftentimes that we do have people who don’t live at or just above the poverty line, but for whom one little thing, like a car repair bill for instance, can put them right over the end. Oftentimes, food is the first thing that people will cut back on when they are in crisis,” Jones said. “We have been thinking of starting something like this ‘Food for Thought’ backpack program for a long time and we are so thankful to the Think LOCAL! folks for taking the initiative.”

The project began as a coincidental confluence of folks who recognized a need.

Through her membership in Kiwanis, Sharon Binette, advertising representative at Mainely Media LLC, was familiar with a similar backpack program that’s been run for the past four years in the Scarborough school system under the auspicious of Project G.R.A.C.E. The Kiwanis have often stepped up to help support that program, she said.

“So, when I joined Think LOCAL! and became chapter president, and we were thinking of things to do in the community, I immediately said, let’s start a backpack program.”

At the same time, Andrea Brown, a parent with children in the RSU 21 system, was already in contact with the Good Shepherd Food Bank, working out the logistics to get just such a program off the ground.

Meanwhile, others also were sensing the need. Mark Jago, who ran Kennebunk summer day camp, where he saw that even the free lunches provided by that program were not always enough.

“There were literally days when I gave some of my lunch because a kids would come to me and say, ‘Coach Jago, I’m hungry,’ he recalled.

Jago funneled that experience into getting involved with COS, meeting Jones and Winton.

“They mentioned to me that it is the Kennebunk’s most-kept secret, the poor and the hungry that are here within our own community. So, that’s how I got involved, personally.”

Jago, now runs COS’s fuel assistance program and has since joined the Think LOCAL! ranks.

“There are a lot of people involved, but COS is the mother ship,” said Dean Trondle, of Wells, who, like Jago, is involved in both COS, Think LOCAL! and New Vision Custom Solutions, the marketing firm that recently helped COS rebrands itself and launch a new website. The difference is that while Trondle started with New Vision and ended up working with COS, Jago took the opposite path.

“It’s all been this growing spider-web of awareness,” said Trondle.

And, in the end, that’s been what is driving Think LOCAL! to take the lead in raising funds to start the “Food for Thought” program, to help ensure that students come to school free ready to learn without the distraction of a rumbling tummy.

“I joined Think LOCAL! about a year ago as a way of getting familiar with this area,” said Ogunquit massage therapist Michelle Low. “But hearing about this stuff, I definitely wanted to jump on board with it. Maybe it will spread out the other seacoast communities, but, really, a

I was appalled to learn there was this kind of need. I had to help.”

Now, with a program concept in place, it’s just a matter of convincing enough members of the community of the urgency of the need, in order to raise the money now that will get backpacks moving home with students in the fall.

“In terms of overall awareness and need, whether people have lived here a long time, or just a few years like myself, they don’t think of the Kennebunks as having these types of needs,” said Trondle. “And yet, there’s a truth behind that and we can’t ignore it. We need to do something about it, as a community. I’m thankful that more people are not just aware about it, but doing something about it.”

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