Local Hero – Michelle Lamm, Maine Hunger Initiative

Localvores, meet Michelle Lamm. She’s the Program Manager for the Maine Hunger Initiative, based out of the Preble Street Resource Center. Maine has the 5th highest rate of low food security in the US, and the highest in New England. Michelle works to make sure that kids in need have access to free food throughout the summer with the Summer Food Service Program. Despite the success of this program and the continued hunger problem among children, the Summer Food Service Program remains under-utilized. To combat that problem, the Maine Hunger Initiative is holding a series of awareness events called the Summer Success Picnics. Aside from food, there are games, music, yoga, crafts, and much more – all for free! The next picnic is on Tuesday, July 28th at Peppermint Park, and all families are encouraged to attend the festivities!

I sat down with Michelle to learn more about the Summer Food Service Program, the Summer Success Picnics, and the Maine Hunger Initiative.

1) Can you give me a brief summary of the program and what it does?
It’s called the Summer Food Service Program, a USDA program, and people usually shorten it and say Summer Meals. But SFSP is the national acronym. It’s been around forever, probably at least 30 years, I think. And it’s just an extension of the National School Lunch Program, where kids get free and reduced lunch at schools, free breakfast and free lunch, it’s all part of the same funding source. It’s under-utilized; Portland’s in pretty good shape in terms of the number of sites. There’s probably a site every half-mile, so it’s very walkable. But the participation is lower than we would like to see.

And then it becomes a bigger problem in rural parts of the state, because it’s hard for kids to get there. A lot of the sites in rural Maine aren’t walkable, and maybe not even safe to bike there. In Portland, there are 19 open meal sites, which means anyone can go, ages 1 to 18, regardless of your income or where you’re from. It’s completely open, and that’s helpful to reducing stigma and making it more open and welcoming. We’ve been involved since around 2011. In the first two years, we helped open over 24 new sites in Cumberland County, so there was definitely a need.

2) How did you get into this line of work?
I was an AmeriCorps member after college, in 1997, and it was the Vermont Anti-HungerCorps, and I loved it. It was very similar work, and I think there’s always kids who are struggling to access food, and that hasn’t changed, and it’s just going to continue until we keep fighting to maximize these programs and get the word out. I’ve just always cared about that, and when I saw this opportunity come up, I thought, “How great would it be to be in a leadership role?” And we were able to bring on AmeriCorps Vistas, and to be able to mentor Vistas, having been one, was pretty nice.

My minor in college was Early Childhood Development; I’ve always been interested in children. I worked at a food bank after grad school as a program manager for their food assistance programs, so this is kind of a good marriage between food assistance, children, federal assistance programs … what I like about my job is that it’s split between supporting the charitable food program and the federal USDA Federal Nutrition Program. I also have a Masters in social work, and I went the macro route, so it was more community organizing and planning, so this fits into that. I definitely more enjoy looking at program development and where the gaps are than the clinical side.