Full Plates, Full Potential

"There are 87,000 children in Maine who may not know where their next meal is coming from," says John Woods. Woods, 49, is working to solve that problem-and he’s asking his friends to help. It is a rare person who leaves a conversation with Woods without an assigned task. This was the case when, on fairly short notice, he rallied six standout Portland chefs and multiple volunteers to prepare a sumptuous pre-Christmas feast at Flanagan’s Table in Buxton. The dinner raised money for Woods’s new initiative, Full Plates, Full Potential.

"Full Plates, Full Potential is about ending student hunger," says Woods. "We are putting food directly into the hands of children." Federal funds are available to assist in feeding children who do not get enough to eat. The families of these children simply need to identify themselves, but making this happen is more challenging than most people realize. This year, approximately 63,000 out the eligible 87,000 Maine students registered for food assistance. As a result, 24,000 food-insecure students did not have a free or reduced meal at school. Also, when students don’t register that limits the amount of funding that comes to Maine from Washington, D.C. With Full Plates, Full Potential, Woods hopes to break down the barriers between kids and the resources that are available to help them.

"Hungry kids can’t learn," explains Woods. "They don’t do well in school. This leads to fewer chances for future employment. Then the cycle begins again."

Woods, who was raised outside of Boston, has had his own experience with scarcity. "I grew up in a family of five and my father passed away at 42," says Woods. "My mom, like many moms out there, found herself in a situation where she had to ask for help. My grandmother was great, my aunts and uncles were great, but all that together wasn’t enough, so my mom had to turn to public assistance until she figured out the best way forward."

Woods was not discouraged by his family’s situation. "I can remember ketchup sandwiches at night," he recalled during an interview for Love Maine Radio (formerly Dr. Lisa Radio Hour + Podcast) in 2012. "Coming home from school and being able to make a ketchup sandwich, personally I thought that was terrific." Woods acknowledges that he may have been alone in his past interpretation of reality. "My siblings may not have that same memory," he admits.

Woods moved to Maine in 2003 with his wife, Diane, an executive with the Timberland Company. Nine years ago, they attended their first annual Taste of the Nation event on Great Diamond Island. Timberland is a corporate sponsor of Share Our Strength, a national organization responsible for Taste of the Nation, an event held in nearly every state. Maine’s chapter raises money for organizations such as the Good Shepherd Food Bank and Preble Street.

Founded by Kennebunkport summer resident Billy Shore and his sister, Debbie, Share our Strength began its quest to help hungry families in 1984. While working for Senator Gary Hart, Billy Shore read a chilling report about Ethiopia in the Washington Post. More than 200,000 people had died as a result of famine. "It was this juxtaposition between all the issues you talk about in a campaign, and real life-and-death issues impacted by the decisions we make," says Shore. He realized that hunger was a universal concern-and one that he wanted to address in the United States.

At his first Share Our Strength event, Woods learned that Maine was ranked third in the nation in food insecurity. "How, in this country where we have so much and in a state like Maine, can this be?" Woods remembers asking, "How can there be so many hungry children? We found it unacceptable."
Woods felt that his two decades of experience in food service and in the corporate world-much of it with the Sheraton Corporation and Ritz-Carlton- could be put to good use. He began volunteering for Share Our Strength in 2006; by 2009, he had become the chairperson of Maine’s Taste of the Nation. In 2012, Woods was named the Share Our Strength Advocate of the Year.

Woods became Advocate of the Year in large part because of his ability to persuade others to join his crusade. The Flanagan’s Table Full Plates, Full Potential feast showcased the talents of Maine chefs Steve Corry of 555, Rob Evans of Duckfat, Sam Hayward of Fore Street, Jeff Landry of the Farmer’s Table, Larry Matthews, Jr., of Back Bay Grill, and Lee Skawinski of Vignola Cinque Terre. All of them have supported Share Our Strength and Maine’s Taste of the Nation event from the beginning. They have also participated in the Share Our Strength Cooking Matters program, administered by the Good Shepherd Food Bank. As part of Cooking Matters, culinary professionals teach families how to prepare healthy meals on a budget.

"We can’t imagine kids going hungry," says chef Steve Corry, who co-owns 555 with his wife, Michelle. The Corrys have two sons, ages five and seven. "It is our job as parents to take care of our kids, to feed them," says Corry. "There is pride involved. When parents can’t feed their kids, for whatever reason, they feel ashamed." James-Beard- Award-winning chef Rob Evans agrees: "The biggest barrier to getting kids access to the food they need is the stigma."

Share Our Strength has a special interest in the school-aged population. Their No Kid Hungry campaign helps connect older children with federal programs that are already in place to help feed them. The preliminary focus of No Kid Hungry has been high-need states such as Texas, where 1.6 million children are food-insecure. No Kid Hungry helps local organizations uncover why children in need are not taking advantage of the available funding. This campaign has outreach efforts in 17 states. Maine is not one of them.

Woods wants to bring No Kid Hungry to Maine. He believes the state has the resources and the motivation. Flanagan’s Table was a case in point. At the event, guests discussed the hunger issue. "Growing up, we were taught to eat the entire potato-skin and all," says Paul Clifford of his childhood in Lewiston. His great- grandparents came to the United States during one of Ireland’s potato famines. Now a teacher at King Middle School in Portland, Clifford has seen multiple well- intentioned hunger-relief initiatives. One involved giving children backpacks of food to take home to their families, but taking the backpack home was embarrassing for some students. "Kids would call them ‘poverty packs,’" Clifford recalls.

Another Flanagan’s Table guest, Maine senate minority leader Justin Alfond, has made children’s issues an important part of his platform. In 2014 he helped create a task force to end childhood hunger, which was authorized by the legislature. "Sadly, poverty connects our state, whether you are in Dexter or Portland," says Alfond. "[Hunger and food insecurity] create stresses in students’ lives, stresses in their families’ lives. We are working with partners in the business, religious, and nonprofit communities to figure out how we can do a better job of feeding our students here in Maine."

Woods explains that there are 150 children in his town who have been identified as food-insecure. He lives in Cape Elizabeth, which has one of the highest per capita incomes in Maine. Why are children in such a wealthy town-or in any town-food- insecure? The reasons are complex, but often stem from transition: death, divorce, loss of employment, and other sources of financial stress can initiate a downward spiral. Once begun, the shame keeps families from seeking assistance, says Woods. "We know that families traditionally have had to fill out papers requesting free or reduced lunch," says Woods. "And no family wants to ask."
Woods has no problem asking for help. Amidst the festive holiday milieu of Flanagan’s Table, with wreaths overhead and Schooner Fare playing on the sound system, Woods makes it impossible to ignore the contrast between bounty and lack. The meal becomes an opportunity for gratitude, and a way to raise both funds and awareness for those who cannot feed themselves.

By filling the plates of Maine children, Woods is maximizing their potential. His goal is to end childhood hunger in Maine. If Woods can’t do it, nobody can.