Food, it goes without saying, is essential. It is crucial for the health and well-being of our community, especially our youth community. Lack of nutrient-dense and well-balanced meals can negatively affect a student’s mood, mental health, and ability to learn. Over the years, Cumberland County has developed an extensive food safety system to support the health of students across the county. Over the past year, I have had the honor of volunteering with these organizations and exploring the food support system in my community. But despite the importance of access to nutrition, local food security work doesn’t attract many high school students – and that’s something I’d like to change.
In the spring of 2021, I joined three other high school students on an internship offered by the Cumberland County Food Safety Council and Food Fuels Learning. We worked together to develop and conduct a student survey of Portland Public Schools to determine how satisfied students were with the school lunch program and what could be improved. We asked about participation; eligibility for free and discounted lunch; satisfaction with flavors and opinions on local, home-made and cultural foods. Our survey ended up receiving over 800 responses and, after analyzing the data, we presented it to the Food Safety Council board and the public.
We have seen a worrying trend of declining participation in the school lunch program as students age. Contributing factors included an increase in the number of students eating off campus or bringing their lunch home, and a decrease in satisfaction with the meals served. During our meeting with the Director of Food Service at Portland Public Schools, we learned about the myriad of regulations school cafeterias must follow and the innovative ways they create tasty meals given the limits on vegetables, salt and sugar. sugar, etc. I’m happy to know that U.S. Representative Chellie Pingree is working on several school meal related bills (HR 4379 and HR 2896) that will help cafeterias access more local food and prepare better quality meals.
Following my internship, I discovered more opportunities to participate in food safety work. Through the Food Safety Council’s gleaning initiative, volunteers can collect the surpluses to donate to various local farms. The products are then delivered to food program distributors or pantries in Cumberland County. Wayside Food Programs have adapted to the pandemic by delivering fresh food and non-perishable boxes to families in Portland public schools every week. The volunteers took routes and made contact with families in need. The Locker Project also made changes to its services during the pandemic. They replaced indoor fresh food events with outdoor public places and bagged non-perishable produce and food for distribution.
I always looked forward to the foggy mornings on the farms around Portland. I have made friendships with food advocates, farmers and goats. At a fresh produce event, I had the opportunity to see the blueberries I had gleaned that morning being distributed to dozens of families. It was gratifying to see how these “fruits of labor” brought relief and joy to people in my community. I also enjoyed talking to several of these families who shared their life experiences and culinary stories with me.
Unfortunately, I noticed that I was often the only student volunteer at these events. To get more high school kids involved in local food safety work, I’m working with Food Fuels Learning and other organizations to promote these places to volunteer. With increased youth participation, we can strengthen the food security system for all students and families across the county.
This period is particularly important for food security as students return to school. Many food safety organizations are stepping up a gear for more school-centric work and events. I encourage students to seek volunteer opportunities and help improve food justice and the quality of food in our school community. As we know, to ensure a successful school year for all students, food is really essential.
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