Values in Action: Centering Student Voice

By Jenn So, Full Plates Program Director
April 7, 2022

It has long been Full Plates Full Potential’s ambition to center the voices of those who are the most impacted by childhood hunger—the students themselves—in our work. We believe that truly transformative outcomes that center equity must be directly informed by the people most immediately affected by the policies, initiatives, and solutions we champion. But because we are not a direct service organization, this has historically been a challenging task for us, and even a weakness in our ability to truly understand the lived experience of Maine students experiencing hunger. This year though, we committed to take action toward our goal of centering more student voices through a collaborative pilot project with JMG, an organization that partners with middle and high schools to provide students with the guidance, skills, and opportunities they need to succeed.

Teaming Up to Support Student Initiatives

Together, Full Plates and JMG co-funded grants of up to $5,000 to support pilot-project proposals submitted by JMG students in ten districts. By collaborating with their student peers, school nutrition teams, and administrators, JMG students investigated hunger in their respective schools in order to develop projects to solve the problems they identified in accessing food at school. 

For some of these JMG students, it was their first time realizing that hunger was an issue in their schools, even a chronic and pervasive one. For others, it was a chance to share their lived experiences with their peers to better shape and inform their projects. Through fostering trust-based relationships, students created space and opportunity to open up to their JMG cohorts, as well as their JMG specialists and Full Plates’ and JMG’s leadership teams, about their own experiences relying on school meals. Additionally, they were able to gather their own data through surveys to learn directly from their other student peers about hunger in their own schools. 

Most JMG projects began with in-depth surveys of students in their own schools, where teams learned about barriers to accessing food like: insufficient time to eat during lunch, lack of awareness about school meal offerings like school breakfast, and the negative perception of school meals. The data students gathered through surveys set the foundation for their projects, illuminating existing barriers within their schools and inspiring practical, results-driven solutions to meet these challenges. These incredible students committed to learning from their fellow students, administrators, school nutrition staff, and others in their community in order to adapt their project focuses to meet the needs of each unique set of circumstances.

The Projects

The student-led projects born out of this partnership were impressive, innovative, and clearly showed the students’ dedication to learning about hunger in their communities and working towards creating lasting change in their schools. In presentations to JMG and Full Plates leadership, along with their respective district administrators, these ten districts developed unique and impactful solutions to address hunger in their schools.

At Sanford Middle School, JMG students increased breakfast participation by 100 students in just a few weeks through their awareness campaign. Their grant went in part towards purchasing a breakfast cart supporting the increased demand in breakfast. Multiple schools identified insufficient time to eat lunch as a significant barrier and are advocating for longer lunch periods. Two districts, Calais Middle/High School and Rose M. Gaffney School in Machias Public School District, after hearing about their peers’ desire for more fresh produce in their school meals, are creating school gardens and greenhouses that will be integrated into classroom time. JMG students in Bangor, Brewer, RSU 9 Mt. Blue, RSU 14 Windham/Raymond, and Lisbon heard their peers loud and clear about the difficulty of accessing food between school meal times and so centered their projects around building school snack shacks, snack bins, or reinstated backpack programs that had lost funding during the pandemic. 

Students at RSU 54 Skowhegan, listening to the needs of their peers in conjunctions with their school nutrition staff, focused on creating inviting menu boards to drive meal participation. In RSU 03 Mountain Valley, students developed a sustainable volunteer program to help with school nutrition staffing shortages. They used their grant funding to purchase a sandwich/salad cart that offers more customizable and healthy options for students while decreasing the wait-times in the school lunch line to ensure students had more time to eat their lunches.

A Lasting Impact

Each of these thoughtful and well-executed projects affirm Full Plates’ deeply held belief that to truly address student hunger in Maine, the student voices are essential. We’re blown away by the rigor that these JMG students brought to the process and know that the transformative outcomes of their project will have a lasting impact in each of their communities. Full Plates is tremendously grateful for the courage, perseverance, and commitment these students brought to this initial pilot-project and look forward to continuing this important collaboration in 10 new districts next school year. We’re just getting started!

Want to learn more and hear from JMG students directly? Watch the featured story on News Center Maine’s 207:

Read the full News Center Maine article here.

Full Plates is grateful to Central Maine Power, the Sadie & Harry Davis Foundation, and the Bank of America Charitable Foundation for their generous support of the pilot year of this project.

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