MILO, Maine — It’s all too common for some Milo Elementary School pupils to complain about being hungry when school is not in session.
Poverty in this small Piscataquis County community is high. Of the 243 pupils at the school, more than 90 percent are eligible for free or reduced-price meals, according to school officials. Districtwide, about 500 of the approximately 700 SAD 41 pupils are eligible.
“There’s a lot of complaints frequently from our kids about being hungry on the weekend and who don’t like school vacation weeks because they’re hungry,” Amber Gahagan, SAD 41’s social worker, said this week.
“It’s been a major concern for staff for years and now even more so with the economic times.”
So when a couple of University of New England students with a connection to Milo decided to launch a version of the national Blessings in a Backpack program in Maine, they reached out to local school officials who, in turn, embraced the project.
Under the program, which was launched this week, every pupil in the school receives a backpack filled with enough food to comfort their hungry bellies each weekend and every school vacation.
Tucked inside the 243 backpacks distributed Friday were a juice box, a fruit snack, noodles, applesauce, a Pop Tart, and instant oatmeal, as well as information about the local food cupboard, nutrition information from University of Maine Cooperative Extension, and healthy recipes.
“We’re going to use the whole village to raise these kids,” Dawn Russell, SAD 41’s elementary athletic director and co-coordinator of the project with Gagahan, said Thursday.
It was Janet Hamilton, a Bangor native enrolled in the master’s program for social work at UNE’s Portland campus, who approached the school regarding the project. Hamilton said Friday she had researched the Blessings in a Backpack program and decided to launch it in Maine as her advocacy project. She is being assisted in the project by UNE student Shannon Tucker.
“I really loved the concept and I just decided to do it,” Hamilton said. Because her sister Debbie Clukey teaches sixth grade at the Milo school, Hamilton said she was well aware of the poverty and the hunger in that community.
National studies show that when children are well-nourished and come to school with more energy, their test scores improve, attendance goes up and trips to the nurse go down, according to Hamilton.
While there are 56 schools in the United States that participate in the Blessings in a Backpack program, Milo is the first school in New England, Hamilton said. The program began in the Louisville, Ky., area and founder Stan Curtis of Kentucky flew up last week and met with Hamilton, Tucker and Milo officials to discuss the program. Actress and singer Hilary Duff is the program’s spokesman.
To launch the pilot program, Hamilton, Tucker and Hamilton’s sister, Kathy Chute of Eddington, raised $3,900 and Milo residents contributed another $1,700. All the money is used to buy food locally to fill the backpacks Curtis provides. Penquis Valley High School students from various organizations will assist the co-coordinators in packing the backpacks.
Hamilton said the cost to operate the program is about $2 a week per child. If the program is operated throughout the full school year at Milo Elementary School, the cost would be about $20,000.
“It’s a great program where a community gets involved and the children know that the teachers and the community care about them,” Hamilton said. Whether the program continues next fall will be up to school officials.
Gahagan and Russell said they wan
t to see it continue and expand to the district’s other schools to help those local families who are struggling to stretch their limited dollars.
“The goal is to really have this take off and have it district-wide,” Russell said.