GUILFORD, Maine — With home heating oil and gasoline prices on the rise again and jobs still scarce in northern Maine, United Way officials fear that more people may go hungry, especially children.
‘’Most people don’t realize this, but when money is tight in tough economic times and the price of heating oil is going up, something has to suffer and unfortunately food is one of those,’’ John Kuropchak, president of the United Way of Eastern Maine, said Wednesday.
‘’Over the last three years we’ve seen a real demand for food through our food pantries and through other programs that has gone through the roof,’’ Kuropchak said. That demand is prevalent in all five counties his organization serves, he said.
So this week, United Way of Eastern Maine — in collaboration with SAD 4, Penquis and Partnership Food Pantry in Guilford and with sponsorship from Mayo Regional Hospital in Dover-Foxcroft and Maine Highlands Federal Credit Union — launched the pilot Weekend Backpack Program. The program provides SAD 4 children with new L.L. Bean backpacks filled with an assortment of food items every Friday for consumption on weekends and vacations during the school year.
‘’It’s a program aimed at children who have food security needs on the weekends,’’ Kuropchak said. The children may be enrolled in the federal lunch program, but on weekends there is no breakfast program for them, so this is another way to help, he said.
SAD 4 was willing to step up to the plate to work with the United Way, so the district was selected for the pilot program, Kuropchak said. In addition, Partnership Food Pantry, which serves Guilford, also agreed to donate enough food for the first 100 bags. Kuropchak said the effort is a collaboration of many partners, both private groups and nonprofits. He said the organization hopes to expand the program to other school districts in eastern Maine.
SAD 4 Superintendent Paul Stearns said Wednesday the program will be a good boost for many families. ‘’I just think it’s fantastic to see the collaboration between the various agencies to reach out to benefit our students and families,’’ he said. The donated food will help some families free up money to pay for fuel or school supplies, Stearns added.
‘’Every child deserves a chance at academic success, and this program is directed to those children,’’ Tom Lizotte, Mayo hospital’s director of marketing and development, said Wednesday. The hospital gets many requests for sponsorships throughout the year, but the backpack project was the ‘’most compelling’’ request in recent years, he said.
The backpack project will join other ongoing efforts to help needy families with food, according to Kuropchak. He said his organization has been involved in food security for the past 10 years. The United Way has helped the National Letter Carriers Food Drive, which raises about 90,000 pounds of food annually in eastern Maine for food pantries, he said.
Last year, United Way initiated a food pantry project in which shelves are placed in company locations for a month at a time. The shelves are filled with nonperishable food donated by the company employees. They shelves are then moved to another company, he said. The food is distributed to various food pantries. Last year, the shelf project raised about 9,000 pounds of food and Kuropchak hopes to double that amount this year.