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Task Force Examines How Bangor Schools Buck Hungry Kids Stereotype

Creative Commons

BANGOR,  Maine - Research shows that students who live below the poverty line often have a tougher time succeeding academically. There are, though, so-called outliers - schools and districts with large numbers of poor kids that still manage to produce impressive results in the classroom. In Maine, the Bangor School Department is one such outlier.

Members of a statewide task force to eradicate student hunger visited the city today to learn about the role food security and nutrition is playing in the district's success.

Earlier this year, a study from the Maine Education Policy Research Institute at the University of Southern Maine generally confirmed what other reports from around the country have shown: that a school's level of poverty is the single best indicator of how its students end up doing in the classroom. Schools with larger concentrations of poor kids struggle a lot more academically.

"We hear it all the time from teachers: 'You can give me all the tools in the toolbox. You hand me a hungry child, how am I going to teach that child?'" says Kristen Miale, who runs Good Shepherd Food Bank in Auburn. Maile has just finished a quesadilla in the cafeteria at Bangor High School.

The USM study also found that there are schools in Maine which are performing admirably, despite having larger numbers of poor children. Statewide, roughly 44 percent of kids qualify for free and reduced lunch. In Bangor, 54 percent of kids meet the federal poverty guideline. Nonetheless, the district has a higher graduation rate than the state as a whole, got a B on its annual report card and performs like a system where just 6 percent of the kids qualify for free and reduced lunch.

Miale and other members of the state's task force to end student hunger have come to learn more about what's helped Bangor become a so-called outlier. Getting kids to eat properly, it turns out, is a key part of the strategy.

"We do breakfast and lunch at all 10 schools. We do an afterschool snack program at three schools and a fresh fruit and vegetable program at four of our schools," says Noelle Scott, who runs food service for the Bangor School Department.

We're talking in the buffet line, where today, kids are getting a heaping side of cold carrots with their cheeseburgers or quesadillas. Earlier, at a meeting with the task force in the school's auditorium, Scott spoke about the district's efforts to make sure that every student who is eligible for free and reduced lunch actually gets signed up.

"We have a lot of students that come in and out of our district," she says. It's called mobility, and it can actually make it difficult to feed hungry children. "And when they do come in our district, we're given a list of names the day they come in. We process them for free meals and then let the family know."

"We're no where near a 100 percent, in any school, of kids that could qualify, but don't bring in the paperwork," says Rep. Tori Kornfield, a Bangor Democrat who co-chairs the hunger task force.

Kornfield, who's a former teacher at Bangor High, says the members of the panel will be looking at ways to incorporate what they learn during fact-finding visits like this one as they draft a plan to eradicate student hunger in Maine.

One recommendation that's already in early drafts of the plan is for the state to have a sort of school nutrition czar, who makes sure that all the money coming from the federal government, actually gets used.