Certainly, the Bowdoin students who elected to spend a week in January doing community service accomplished good deeds. They served meals to homeless people in Portland. They cleaned out the basement of a local homeless shelter. They volunteered at a Brunswick food pantry.
Yet they spent just as much time learning. They listened to social service workers speak about the challenges of providing medical treatment or services to the needy, and to social advocates who explained how state laws impact their day-to-day work. They also sat down with a state senator to talk about how to feed Maine’s many hungry kids.
"We’ve learned so much," Mariely Garcia ’17 said. She was a co-leader with Jordan Lantz ’15 for Poverty & Policy, one of the McKeen Center’s two Alternative Winter Break trips this year. Garcia added that she thought she, Lantz and the seven other students on the trip most likely received more, in the way of an education, than they contributed.
The intertwining of policy with social issues was deliberate. "We wanted to give students the big picture, an overview of the policies that affect issues on the ground," Garcia explained.
Lantz, a government major, added, "We wanted to show that policy can be effective and a factor in changing these issues for the better."
He and Garcia focused on three core issues: public health, housing and food security. In Portland, they visited Preble Street, a homeless shelter, food kitchen and advocacy organization. They went to the Oasis Clinic, a free medical clinic in Brunswick; to Tedford Housing, a Brunswick homeless shelter; to Maine Housing, a state agency in Augusta; and to the Mid Coast Hunger Prevention Program in Brunswick. State Senator Justin Alfond, a Portland Democrat, also spoke to the group about his efforts to feed more of the roughly 84,000 Maine students – one in five of the whole student population – who regularly go hungry. Federal statistics show Maine has the third highest rate of food insecurity in the nation, up from seventh in 2013.
Every January, Bowdoin offers two Alternative Winter Break trips to about 18 students who apply to participate. The trips are each led by two students who design the week’s roster of activities and nightly group reflections. The other trip this year, led by Victor Leos ’16, focused on immigrants and refugees in Maine.
A Talk About Child Hunger
Senator Alfond told the students sitting around him in the McKeen Center that about 46 percent of K-12 students in Maine are eligible to receive free and reduced lunches at school. Yet a large percentage don’t participate in the program. He blamed this on burdensome bureaucratic forms that put off parents, as well as the possible stigma families fear if their neighbors realize they can’t provide regular meals.
The town of Brunswick, he continued, has 2,400 students in K-12. About 750 are eligible for free or reduced lunches at school. However, only 60% of the 750 participate, leaving 300 potentially hungry children unaided. Across the state, this number grows to 21,000, according to Alfond.
Feeding hungry children, Alfond said, "is something that is critically important for Maine’s future."
Alfond is part of a state task force trying to increase the numbers of students who sign up for free or affordable meals at schools. If everyone signed up who was eligible, at least $30 million in food aid would come into the state from the federal government. Part of the solution, he figured, was to increase awareness. "The public conversation and awareness has been incredibly low," he said. "Communities don’t want to acknowledge there is food insecurity in their town. People don’t want to acknowledge that young people under 18 are hungry every day."
Impressed by the knowledge they gained about Maine in just one week, Garcia and Lantz said that their AWB group is planning its own awareness campaign on campus. They’ll call it "Bowdoin Did You Know…"
"Maine Street is pretty," Garcia said of downtown Brunswick, "but go two blocks east and there is a homeless shelter. Two minutes from Searles [Science Building] and there’s people being served free meals."