SANFORD — School may be out for the summer, but the Sanford Backpack Program is still very much in session.
The program provides nutritious food on a weekly basis to students who may otherwise go hungry in their personal time, when they are not at school and do not have access to the free and reduced-cost meals that are served there. Now through the end of the summer, volunteers will distribute food at St. Thomas School on North Avenue every Thursday at 9:30 a.m.
“All Sanford families are encouraged to attend,” said Lori Williams, who serves as the program’s administrative assistant.
The Sanford Backpack Program started nine years ago in the nurse’s office at Sanford Junior High School, at the time providing snacks to students who arrived at school hungry. The program has expanded significantly since then and now serves approximately 200 students throughout the school system every week.
The program used backpacks in the beginning — hence, its name — but now students bring home bags instead. Thanks to volunteers and donors, the program is able to fill each bag with such staples as whole wheat pasta, whole wheat macaroni and cheese, tuna fish, peanut butter, canned fruits and vegetables, spaghetti sauce, brown rice, and soup mix.
“We switch it up when we can and also add fresh produce when we are able,” Williams said.
In fact, during the recently completed academic year, the program was able to double its extra free-produce distributions at local schools, according to Williams. Distributions were held during school events, such as freshmen orientations, math and literacy activities, movie nights, ice cream socials, informational forums, and other gatherings at which parents were likely to attend with their children.
“Going to these events are beneficial for all parties,” Williams said. “The schools get more families to show up, and families get to experience the event and take home food from the backpack program, helping us fight hunger, one backpack at a time.”
As a result of doubling its distribution this past year, the Good Shepherd Food Bank has identified the Sanford Backpack Program as its biggest school pantry partner in Maine for the second year in a row, according to Williams.
“What that looks like: from September 2018 through June 2019, we provided the students and families of Sanford with about 53,800 pounds of fresh produce, along with thousands of pounds of meats, dairy, and whole grains,” Williams said.
Every year, the program holds a Chocolate Benefit Spectacular to raise funds. The event, at which attendees enjoy samples from local chocolatiers, is held every February and to date has racked up tens of thousands of dollars for the program. Community members, business owners, and city officials all work together each year to make the fundraiser a success.
The Sanford Backpack Program has an advisory board, two part-time employees, and a team of volunteers.
As Williams said, “Thanks to an amazing group of volunteers and supporters, the distribution of bags and thousands of pounds of food each week usually goes off without a hitch.”
And will continue to do so throughout the summer. The program just held its first distribution at St. Thomas School on Thursday, July 11, and will hold more on a weekly basis between now and when school starts again in September.
To request more information, to volunteer, or to enroll your child in the program, please e-mail Williams at email@example.com. If you wish to donate to the program, please make out your check to Strategies for a Stronger Sanford and send it to that organization at P.O. Box 958, Sanford, Maine 04073. Please write “backpacks” in the memo space on your check.
You also are invited to “like” the Sanford Backpack Program on Facebook.