New food pantry fills a need at middle school

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WESTBROOK — Realizing that many Westbrook students don’t have healthy food available after they leave school for the day, the community has teamed up with school officials to start a food pantry at Westbrook Middle School.

“The middle school food pantry has been a dream the last few years, knowing the amount of food insecurity and knowing the amount of need our middle school students bear,” Superintendent Peter Lancia said.

School Nutrition Director Mary Emerson said approximately two-thirds of students at Westbrook Middle School qualify for free or reduced lunch.

The idea for a food pantry at the middle school came out of a meeting a few summers ago with Kiwanis, the Locker Project, Good Shepherd Food Bank of Maine and Barbara Nichols, the former school nutrition director.

“We had hopes, but there just wasn’t the space to do it. You have to have some room to do it well,” said Westbrook Middle School Principal Laurie Wood.

Space became available this year when the school’s new wings on the second and third floors were completed.

The pantry, dubbed The Falcon’s Nest, is on the second floor behind a bank of classrooms and offers some privacy to students who visit it to pick up food, clothing, school supplies and other necessities. It had previously been a small instructional space.

Wood said over the years students in need have been connected to staff, “who personally funded a response to food insecurity.”

The Falcon’s Nest, which is managed by student liaison Amie Boucher, offers a more concerted and focused effort. In September, 500 snack items from the Falcon’s Nest were handed out to students, and three students started taking food home to their families on Fridays.

“It helps us identify a little bit more families that are in need,” Wood said.

The pantry is closed only two periods a day when the space is used for individual instruction.

“It is an open door policy,” Wood said.

The community, Boucher and Wood said, has been a constant source of support and donations, with the Westbrook Kiwanis Club, the Rotary Club of Westbrook-Gorham and others quick to donate. Boucher said the Greater Portland School of Jukado, located on Main Street, has donated bottled water and agreed to donate shelving to help display the offerings.

Starting this month, food also will be provided by The Locker Project, which works with 22 schools in the area to manage their food pantries or distribute free food to students.

Students and families can also make use of the Westbrook Food Pantry at the Westbrook Community Center as well. That pantry is open Tuesdays from noon to 2 p.m. and 6 p.m. to 7:30 p.m.

Still, Lancia said it is important to make access to pantries and their resources as easy as possible.

“The need for food in this community is great. The more access we can provide for kids, the better,” Lancia said. “For some, transportation is an issue and (people) can’t get to the community center and some kids bring food home as they contribution to their family.”

Westbrook High School has a food pantry that was established several years ago.

Initially it provided staples for students to take home and prepare meals over the weekend,” said Perry Sutherland, a social worker at the school, in an email to the American Journal. “In the past three years, food supports have expanded significantly with the leadership of Veronica Bates and partnering with the Locker Project, an area agency providing supports directly to schools.  With the help of many donations and regular support from the Locker Project, nutritious snacks and ready-to-eat meals have been made available throughout the building for students.  Food items are available in several low barrier areas, including offices of the social workers, school counselors, the school nurse, and several identified classrooms.  Additionally, the Locker Project continues to come to WHS bi-weekly to provide a large selection of fresh produce, fruits, breads and other items donated by area grocery stores.”
“Hundreds of students have taken advantage of the generous offerings provided by donors, helping students and their families in a variety of critical ways,” Sutherland continued.

 

The school district also has begun offering afternoon snacks to students who stay after school for structured activities.

“We served 946 snacks in the month of September in 14 days the program operated,” Emerson said.  “Of course, as with any new program we certainly hope that the number increases as more students stay after school for activities over the year.”

Anyone with questions about the free or reduced lunch program or school nutrition can contact Emerson at emersonm@westbrookschools.org or 591-6054.

Michael Kelley can be reached at 781-3661 x 125 or mkelley@keepmecurrent.com or on Twitter @mkelleynews.

The Falcon’s Next at Westbrook Middle School was set up this year to make sure students have food and other basic neccessities they may lack at home.

Winter wear is available at The Falcon’s Nest.  Amie Boucher, who manages the space, said she has eight or nine totes of additional gear.

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