PORTLAND, Maine – Deering Oaks park was buzzing Thursday with the playful chatter of about 150 children and their parents, who showed up to enjoy a free collaborative picnic that aimed to nourish bodies and minds and combat a growing problem in Maine: food insecurity.
According to several the organizers of the event, including Donna Yellen, chief program officer at the Preble Street Resource Center, Maine ranks fifth in the nation and first in New England for food insecurity among children.
"One in four children in Maine experience food insecurity," Yellen said. "This is a way for the entire community to come together to feed our children."
About 275 meals of sandwiches, chips and watermelon were passed out to anyone younger than 18 years old. They were provided by the Portland Maine Hunger Initiative, which funds the meals with grants from the National League of Cities and the Food Research and Action Committee.
According to Michelle Lamm, program manager at the Maine Hunger Initiative, the city of Portland provides about 2,000 pounds of food per day to children in need, but they could give much more if the city gained access to other federal funds. Maine is only serving 16 percent of children who are eligible to receive a free meal in the summer, according to Lamm.
"Maine has historically not done a good job of accessing money from the federal nutrition program," Lamm said. "There’s about $45 million more we could potentially bring in to maximize free lunches for kids in the state."
"It’s good that the city is providing something like this," said Francis Gordon, a Portland resident who brought his 3-year-old daughter, Julia, to the park after seeing a sign that the Maine Red Claws mascot Crusher was in the area. "Kids need good nutrition."
"Daddy, let’s go over there," Julia said while riding on her father’s shoulders and pointing to a crowd of people who were watching a gymnastic performance from the Circus Conservatory of America, one of many community groups that showed up to provide free entertainment.
In an effort to promote free lunches in the least stigmatizing way, organizers said they invited families from all income levels to enjoy a camp-like atmosphere.
"Food is a great equalizer," Yellen said. "But we’re also here to educate. If we invest in our kids now, we know they’ll do better in school and become healthier adults."
Yellen was referring to the many tables and tents strewn about the park that invited children to understand the importance of healthy eating, physical activity and reading. Special guests at the picnic included the University of Maine 4-H Summer of Science Team, Slugger the Sea Dog and the Portland Public Library Bookmobile, among others.
In front of the bridge that stretches across the splashing fountains, Mayor Michael Brennan enthusiastically was leading a group of children from Youth and Family Outreach in a "Feeding Bodies and Minds" pledge.
"I promise to explore Portland," the group of 25 children repeated after being prompted by Brennan. "I promise to get and use my library card. I promise to read. I promise to eat healthy and be active."
When children weren’t stretched out on the grass snacking on watermelon, they were participating in scavenger hunts with the Girl Scouts of America. Heather Cameron set up a table to recruit new members.
"Everyone had a lot of fun," Cameron said. "Especially when we brought out the big parachute."
When the last of the meals were served, most of the attendees split up into two big groups: the ones watching the fast paced acrobatics of the Circus Conservatory and the ones cheering on the 4-H Summer of Science Team as they launched bottle rockets into the air.
Erin Fay, a circus performer, was suspended by ropes upside down about 10 feet above the ground, flipping and twirling, in a display that left the young audience wide-eyed. Fay said she was happy to see all the smiling children in the crowd.
"I fell in love with the circus arts right after my first class," Fay said. "Of course, I support free lunches for children."