Every Friday, the students of the Viking Alternative Program at Searsport District High School get together to work on a long-term project that has real-life consequences — making sure that hungry children in the district have enough to eat over the weekend.
Last week, the small class moved speedily and efficiently through the process of packing 60 or so bags with cans of tuna, boxes of macaroni and cheese, shelf-stable milk boxes, granola bars, cereal and more. Later, they would deliver the bags to staff members at the nearby elementary school and middle school, who would be tasked with tucking the food into the backpacks of the children who are on the list. It can make a difference, the V-Alt students said, with one adding that he knows from personal experience.
“This is where I come when I need food,” William Tripp, 16, of Stockton Springs, said, matter-of-factly adding that he has had to deal with food insecurity himself over the years. “It helps when you know you have something to eat for the weekend.”
The food is made available through a program called Help Us Stop Hunger, or H.U.S.H., which was started three years ago by a group of community members concerned about food insecurity at the school. A person is considered food insecure if they lack access to enough food to ensure adequate nutrition, and according to the USDA, one in five Maine children fits in this category. The group had heard about other places in the state that had successfully started similar backpack programs to get food to students ahead of the weekend, and they wanted to start one in their town.
“The need is very big,” Mary Brann, who helped to found H.U.S.H., said Friday. “We decided we would like to have a project that would send food home on the weekends for kids who didn’t have as much as they would like or need.”
It took some time to get the program going, but eventually it was registered with the Good Shepherd Food Bank, the largest hunger relief organization in Maine, the agency through which H.U.S.H. purchases the food that is given to the students. They started with just the first and second grade, but there were a few bugs to work out. At first, Brann said, the adults packed heavy grocery bags of food to give the children, who struggled at times to carry them home. Eventually, they streamlined the program, which seemed to be serving an ever-expanding number of children.
At first, just eight or so students took the bags home, but last year there were 30 and this year 60. All the bags are distributed to elementary and middle school students, which means that there is very likely an untapped need among high school students who could use extra food but who don’t feel comfortable about taking part in the program. Organizers are hoping that that will change and the program will spread into the high school, too.
The explosive growth meant that the community members needed a little help from inside the school, and that’s how the alternative education students got involved.
“They are very enthusiastic about this project,” Brann said. “We couldn’t be more pleased.”
The V-Alt program is in its first year, and functions as a place for students who need a different way to learn than the traditional classroom setting.
“Often that’s a more hands-on way,” Kristin Tripp, the lead teacher for the V-Alt program, said. “We decided to do a more project-based approach.”
And H.U.S.H. has been a great project for her students to tackle. When the pickup truck comes once a month with a delivery from the Good Shepherd Food Bank, the teenagers jump up to unpack the food and carry it into the school, where they have taken an unused office and turned it into a food pantry. They organize and pack the weekly bags of food and also have begun to write grants to try and expand the program. They write emails to coordinate the program and thank you notes to program donors. Earlier that day, they had hit “send” on a grant that would allow the program to purchase a refrigerator so they could augment the canned and boxed foods with fresh fruits, vegetables and dairy products.
“We’re crossing our fingers,” Tripp said.
The program is helping them, too. Searsport District High School is a standards-based school, meaning that in order to graduate, students must show that they have mastered skills and not just accumulated a sufficient number of credit hours. Volunteering with H.U.S.H. allows the alternative education students to work on English language and other standards. Maybe just as important, they are also doing something that matters.
“It makes me feel happy about myself,” Brandon Littlefield, 15, of Searsport said about helping other students. “It makes me feel accomplished.”
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