SOUTH PORTLAND — The Locker Project and the South Portland School Department have benefitted from a partnership together, helping students and families continue to have healthy food all year.
Primarily serving South Portland, Portland and Westbrook, the nonprofit Locker Project provides fresh, healthy food to schools, said the organization’s website.
Beginning in 2015, the Locker Project opened a school pantry at Kaler Elementary, then expanding to Brown, Memorial, Skillin and South Portland High School in 2016, Small and Mahoney in 2019 and Dyer in the fall of 2020, Kathryn Sargent, executive director, said.
Ordinarily, the program stocks school pantries with fresh food, Sargent said.
“That was sort of the basis for the original program, and we would also were doing the fresh food events where we rescue mostly produce from different supermarkets and we would have a regularly scheduled time that we’d go to a school and lay it all on a table,” she said. “The kids would all come through and pack bags before the end of the day to take home. Neither of those things were possible once those schools closed at-large. Even when they reopened, no one could access the pantries at schools.”
When schools closed in March, the district began offering school meals at various sites throughout South Portland, and the Locker Project partnered with food service staff to distribute groceries, Sargent said.
“We were bagging up foods and distributing it that way, so people would come to get school meals and they would be able to get our bags of groceries as well,” she said. “That bag program has evolved. We continued doing it through the summer at the school meal sites, and when schools reopened, we changed it a little bit to separate produce from staples because produce bags need a little more attention. If they’re held overnight, they need to be refrigerated and so forth.”
Now the Locker Project distributes green bags with produce and purple bags with staples to each school, the Redbank meal site and the Brickhill site, Sargent said.
The South Portland School Department has supported the program as well, securing funding for South Portland programing coordinator Courtney Bowers, who began in September, Sargent said. Bowers works with staff and social workers to ensure that students and families are getting access to food.
Gretchen McCloy, the school department’s director of community partnerships, has been a strong supporter of the Locker Project, Sargent said.
“So they’ve done a lot of effort in terms of communicating with school staff and making sure parents know the resource is available,” she said. “They’ve provided us with financial help, so they secured funding for Courtney’s position for this year, which is super helpful. There have been small grants that they’ve gotten for specific schools or specific projects, so they’ve been really invested in it and committed to making sure that kids have the food they need and the families.”
The Locker Project also provides snacks for students to eat during the day, Sargent said.
Leah Siviski, an English teacher at South Portland High School, said that the snacks help “level the playing field.”
“At the beginning of the year, during snack break, some kids had snacks, some didn’t,” she said. “Once I started getting snacks from the Locker Project, I just went around with a basket of snacks, and almost every student took something. It’s important to me that all kids have the energy they need in order to focus at school. Snacks from the Locker Project help with that. I’m so appreciative of the work that they do for our community.”
The program has seen that since the pandemic began, the need has increased, Sargent said. By changing the model, the Locker Project has been able to increase the amount of food.
Research shows that when kids are hungry, they have a harder time paying attention, Bowers said.
“Food insecurity also goes along with increased illness and poor attendance,” she said. “So for everything kids need to be successful in schools, food is critical, and having adequate nutrition is really, really important. The fact that we can make more healthy food available to these kids and it’s a reliable source and it also helps to feed their families, it’s just better for the community as a whole, to have kids and their families be strong and able to learn.”
For staff, it’s important to know that students are getting the nourishment they need, said South Portland High School Assistant Principal Kim Bennett, who thanked the Locker Project.
“During a pandemic teachers and school staff are working to juggle more moving pieces than ever before,” she said. “Teachers work to meet the needs of their students, including making sure kids are not hungry. By providing snacks the Locker Project is not only helping our students — knowing there are snacks available for our students helps our teachers know the needs of their students are being met.”
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