The Strength of School Partners

by Aoife Dowd School Initiatives Coordinator, Good Shepherd Food Bank

School is back in session, but this school year looks like none before. In this Q&A blog, Aoife Dowd, the School Initiatives Coordinator for Good Shepherd Food Bank of Maine and former Feeding America Child Hunger Corps member at the Community Food Bank of Alabama, discusses the roles of schools in addressing food insecurity. The partnerships between schools and food banks, especially as many schools adjust operations to prevent the spread of COVID-19, remains as important as ever.

Good Shepherd Food Bank is the largest hunger-relief organization in the state of Maine. The Food Bank partners with over 500 partner agencies, 200 youth programs, 70 farm partners, and 90 healthcare providers statewide, and represents a wide diversity in geographies and communities. Aoife works across the state supporting capacity building and programming for over 200 school partners (pre-K through post-secondary education).

What role do schools play in the food security of your community, and how does your food bank partner with schools?

Schools are an essential partner in addressing community food security. School partners bring an understanding and expertise to families’ needs in their communities that we would never understand from a food bank perspective. We know that schools offer a safe and trusted place for many families who would not otherwise consider utilizing a traditional pantry or social services, with schools often offering several wraparound services. While we work with a handful of CACFP and SFSP programs, our primary partnership with schools is through unique partner-led and designed school pantries. They range from brick and mortar programs to more mobile and low-touch styles. Our partners include traditional K-12 sites, several colleges, and Head Start programs statewide, allowing school partners to engage in a continuum of care around food security in their community.

The COVID-19 pandemic has impacted us all, and we in the charitable food system have made many shifts to continue to safely serve our communities and respond to the increase in people seeking food assistance. Schools, too, quickly made many changes to the ways they operate. As the new school year begins, how have your school programs changed? Has anything remained the same?

The pandemic has brought to light the strength, resilience, and flexibility of our school communities. At the outset of schools closing, close to 93% of our school partners kept their programming running, with several operating through the summer. We’re thankful to see them carry that work into this fall, despite all the additional work our schools are now handling during the pandemic. As we’re working statewide, the return to school has looked different across the board. However, a large number of our schools opted to partially reopen, engaging in a hybrid model that offers some in and out of school times. A large majority of our sites quickly pivoted in March from in-person programming to low-touch programs, including deliveries, backpack, and drive-through models. We anticipate this to continue as sites manage the safety of their communities and their students. Despite the challenges of less in-person contact with their families, many sites use opportunities in their schedules to offer all-day programming on days when students are in school. Some schools are working to partner more closely with local pantries to lean on that community support, and many schools have found ways to partner with crucial programs like SFSP to double their impact, offering meals and pantry items to be picked up at the same time. Through government programming such as CFAP, several of our sites provided pre-boxed local produce as a convenient and nutritious asset, turning drive-through programs into school farmer’s markets.

What can we celebrate with you? It’s early in the school year, and your programs are likely just starting, but what’s going well so far?

We cannot do this work without the strength of our school partners. In the face of shutdowns, re-opening, and navigating new classrooms, and, in many cases, new home life and personal challenges, the teachers, social workers, nurses, food service teams and support staff that run these programs have been tireless in their work. Through the jumbles, hurdles, and confusion we all face together, they’ve never wavered in their commitment to students and families. They deserve our gratitude and celebration, and we hope to continue to work hard to support their needs!

How can we better support children and families facing food insecurity during this time?

Supporting those facing food insecurity is about investment at every level. We are thankful for the strength of our partners but know that they cannot do it alone. Supporting families means advocating for school re-openings that keep students safe and offer security to working families. It means advocating for universal school lunch policies and legislation like the CARES Act that extend necessary benefits and funds. Direct access to dollars and autonomy is crucial now and always for families, which means better funding and fewer restrictions for SNAP, Disability, and Unemployment, as well as divesting funding from food banks and into the hand of communities. Most critically, it means dismantling systems that continue to push families further into the crisis of poverty. And advocating locally and nationally to allocate and reallocate government funds from systems of harm and oppression to support community-driven solutions, which would address the challenges faced by marginalized communities and begin to help families now.

To learn more about how you can get involved with advocating for change, visit Feeding America Action.