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Students take on challenge of food insecurity in their own school cafeterias

Jobs for Maine Graduates and Full Plates Full Potential recently collaborated in 10 schools, and will help implement ideas to make food appealing and accessible

THORNDIKE, Maine — Schools across our state are on the front line for feeding students, often offering breakfast and lunch, even snacks. 

Two statewide organizations recently collaborated for the first time, hoping to uncover new ways to tackle food insecurity. Part of their plan? To make kids part of the solution.

Lunch time at Mount View School in Thorndike is boisterous and busy as students load up their trays and settle in to eat and socialize. 

"This is their school. This is their program, and we are here," School Nutrition Director Tina Fabian said. "They’re our customers. So we want to make sure we are offering what they want to eat and still stay within the regulations." 

It is an ongoing challenge for staff who plan menus to offer healthy food that kids will actually eat. Full Plates Full Potential is a statewide nonprofit working to end childhood hunger in Maine. Jobs for Maine Graduates places specialists in schools to mentor students and raise their aspirations.

Last fall, these two nonprofits set up pilot programs at 10 schools, exploring ways to encourage students to eat healthy breakfasts and lunches. They tapped the students themselves to come up with ideas that would get them excited about what was offered in their cafeterias.

Justin Strasburger is executive director of Full Plates Full Potential.

"We hadn’t really had that much of an opportunity to hear directly from kids. And the students," Strasburger said. "And so this provided a really great and exciting opportunity for us to learn directly from the kids."

And the kids responded. At each school, the students studied food insecurity and brainstormed ways to make food more accessible and appealing. 

Jobs for Maine Graduates specialists, already working in the schools, helped. They began with some special training to lead the students through this process. 

At Mount View, Kyle Story works with middle schoolers.

"The thing that makes that so perfect with JMG is through our program we already encourage, strongly, for our students to become leaders in their community and to step up and we want their voice heard," Story said. "So that they can help be future leaders. So by bringing them in on this it seemed to collaborate really well."

The kids started by surveying their fellow students: what would they like to see on the menu? Perhaps more importantly, what would entice them to make healthy choices at breakfast and lunch?

"Some students don’t find the food appealing sometimes because the options are very limited most of the time," said eighth-grader Emma Hurd. She was part of the team of students at Mount View who tackled this project.

At her school?  The students wanted the option of making their own sandwiches at a sandwich bar. "I think that’s gonna make them eat more. I mean you can get a wrap or a sandwich and I don’t really know anyone who doesn’t any of like those," she said with a smile. 

Each school in the program will receive $5,000 to put the ideas to work. The day we were there, Mount View had received its check to purchase the new sandwich bar.

Fabian is excited about what the sandwich bar will mean for the cafeteria.

"The sandwich bar is going to be huge," she said. "That’s what they want. The kids nowadays, they want the grab-and-go or making their own sandwiches and salads. Sadly, they don’t want meatloaf and potatoes like we grew up on. And what our parents made for us. They want a food court setting. And that’s what we’re trying to do. For our middle and high school kids. That’s what we’re trying to attain."

The students at Mount View also learned that a big challenge in their cafeteria,  and cafeterias across the state, is staffing.  Adding new equipment would require more from the staff. Did the students see a solution for that challenge? They sure did.

It quickly became clear that if students volunteered to help serve at lunch, the cafeteria staff could spend their time prepping for the next day and staffing something like that new sandwich bar. 

Faith Roderick is a sixth-grader at Mount View. She was happy to eat a quick lunch and skip recess so she can serve lunch to the elementary school kids.

"Having the kids help, they come in and serve elementary lunch," Fabian said. "It’s amazing. They take charge, my staff doesn’t have to be involved, they can step right back. Faith, we call her our CEO because she takes charge, she gets the kids ready to go, she’ll go out and recruit, make sure, 'Oh, we need you in the kitchen, you need to come in and help serve lunch.'  They do a fabulous job."

"I was having kind of a bad day, a lot of things were going wrong and I kind of feel like whenever I have a bad day, I feel like helping," Faith said. "And trying to make my day better by helping others ... and trying to make other people’s day better as well. So I just came down here and I straight up went to the counter and I asked, 'OK, can I help some time?'” recalled Faith. 

Seeing Faith in action, it wasn’t long before her friends joined her behind the counter.

"It makes me feel kind of proud of myself," she said. 

Kyle Story put it this way: "Learning to be part of that change is a really empowering thing especially at this age with seventh- and eighth-graders it really inspires them to continue on with this success and be leaders in their community and take on more challenging roles as they get older."

The students worked on the sustainability of their ideas, and the solutions at each school were different based on that school’s needs. One school wanted to grow more food on site and will spend their money on greenhouses and growing beds. Another school wanted to expand access to food pantries, and actually do a better job of advertising all that was available on the school menu. This collaboration will happen again next academic year in 10 new schools.

If you would like to learn more about Jobs for Maine Graduates, click here.  If you'd like to know more about the work of Full Plates Full Potential, click here

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