A new backpack program at the Ecumenical Food Pantry in Newcastle provides healthy meals and snacks to 60 local children every week.
The program is funded completely by donations, according to pantry Co-chair Michael Westcott. The pantry uses the donations to purchase food from the Good Shepherd Food Bank, Main Street Grocery, and Rising Tide Community Market.
The bags include fresh fruit, cheese sticks, granola bars, raisins, trail mix, peanuts, applesauce cups, pancake mix, oatmeal, canned chicken or tuna, ramen noodles, chili and rice, baked beans, tomato soup, and macaroni and cheese.
The backpack program serves 24 students at Salt Bay Area Head Start in Newcastle, 28 at Great Salt Bay Community School in Damariscotta, and eight at Nobleboro Central School.
Pantry volunteers pack bags for Head Start at 8:30 a.m. each Tuesday and for GSB and NCS at 8:15 a.m. each Friday at The Second Congregational Church in Newcastle, home to the pantry.
“It’s important to help the community,” Christina Belknap, a PTO member at GSB and parent of a kindergartner, said as she picked up the 28 bags for distribution at the school. Belknap said more people should help out if they can.
“There’s a great sense of community in Damariscotta and the area,” Belknap said.
Members of the food pantry got the idea for the program when they heard about similar programs elsewhere in the county and realized there wasn’t one in the immediate area.
“We’ve got the ability to do it,” Westcott said.
According to a 2016 report by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the 2014-2016 average prevalence of food insecurity in the U.S. was 13 percent, with Maine at 16.4 percent.
Maine tied for the third-most households experiencing “very low food security” at 7.4 percent.
According to the 2016 Map the Meal Gap report by Feeding America, 1,220 children in Lincoln County, or 20.6 percent, are food insecure. Seventy-seven percent of the 1,220 children would likely be income-eligible for federal nutrition programs.
The Ecumenical Food Pantry first launched a smaller backpack program last year, working with 15 children at Salt Bay Area Head Start, according to Westcott. It expanded the program this year to include GSB and NCS. Participating students at the two schools began receiving bags in January.
The biggest challenge the program has faced is getting the word out to parents, according to pantry Co-chair Linda Sandefur.
Head Start and the participating schools sent out a sign-up sheet at the beginning of the school year. Parents could fill it out if they wished to participate.
Any student eligible for free or subsidized school meals, or any student enrolled in Head Start, can sign up, according to the form.
“We’d love to reach as many children as we can,” Sandefur said.
Volunteers, some from the Damariscotta-Newcastle Rotary Club, set the food out, and a volunteer from each participating school packs the bags and brings them back to the school.
“They’ve been very receptive,” Westcott said of Head Start and the participating schools.
“It helps out a lot,” Morgan Hart, case manager for Salt Bay Area Head Start, said of the program.
Head Start is a federally funded, income-eligible program that aims to prepare children for kindergarten, according to Hart. The education and family support program provides services from prenatal to 5 years old.
Because the program is free, and helps prepare future students, “everyone should apply,” Hart said.
For more information on Head Start, go to headstartprogram.us or call 442-7963.
The pantry sent out an end-of-the-school-year survey to recipients of the bags, asking if they would like the backpack program to continue next school year and what kind of food their child likes or dislikes. The pantry has not received any feedback yet, according to Westcott.
Even though the backpack program only operates during the school year, Sandefur wants the public to know the pantry stays open year-round. The pantry is open to the public from 9:30-11 a.m. every Tuesday.
A summer meal program run by Healthy Lincoln County provides free breakfast and lunch to any child up to 18 years of age. Sites include the Boothbay Region and Central Lincoln County YMCAs, Miller School in Waldoboro, and the Wiscasset Community Center.
The program will start June 25. For more information, see the Facebook page Lincoln County Summer Meals.
To volunteer at the pantry, call Sandefur at 529-6965 or Westcott at 563-5597, or email firstname.lastname@example.org. Donations can be sent to the Ecumenical Food Pantry at P.O. Box 46, Newcastle, ME 04553.
For more information, visit newcastlefoodpantry.org.