MOUNT DESERT ISLAND — The island’s two programs that provide take-home meals on weekends for school children in need have seen a sharp rise in the number of recipients since the COVID-19 pandemic closed schools and began causing economic hardship for local families.
“Since the pandemic began, our numbers have almost quadrupled to over 100 one week,” said Vicky Smith, co-director with Rev. Rob Benson of the Backpack Program based at the Congregational Church in Bar Harbor. That program serves children in Bar Harbor, Mount Desert, Trenton, Cranberry Isles and, periodically when requested, on Swan’s Island and Frenchboro.
The Backpack Program run by Harbor House in Southwest Harbor serves children in that community and Tremont. The number of backpack meals distributed there each week increased from 17 prior to the school closures to 42 this past weekend, according to program coordinator Diana Novella.
“I think everyone is very appreciative of it,” she said. “Even now with the schools giving breakfasts and lunches to kids [for six days a week], our program makes it so they will have extra.”
Harbor House also is buying gift certificates for families from places such as the Southwest Food Mart and Gott’s Store.
“That’s our way of also supporting local businesses that are still open,” Novella said.
She said three local churches – Southwest Harbor Congregational, Tremont Congregational and St. John’s Episcopal – donate food or money.
Smith said the Bar Harbor-based program depends on a team of community partners and volunteers.
“Each week we have people sourcing the food, people packing the food and people delivering the food to the various schools for pickup,” she said. “We coordinate with school principals, nurses, guidance counselors and teachers to target the children that experience food insecurity.”
To ensure anonymity, Smith said, “We receive numbers only and never know who receives the food.”
Several local businesses assist the Backpack Program. Smith said the owners of the Thirsty Whale Tavern and Reel Pizza Cinerama help the program buy food through their distributors. Hannaford Supermarket, she said, “has been a big help, as we do not have all our preferred food available through our usual sources.”
Little Notch Bakery donates loaves of bread for the backpacks each week.
The Backpack Program does not accept food donations from individuals, but financial support is welcomed. Checks made payable to the Backpack Program may be sent to Vicky Smith, Co-Director, at P.O. Box 123, Hulls Cove, ME 04644.
To donate to the Harbor House Backpack Program, contact Diana Novella at 266-5271 or [email protected]