Learning Curve

School pantries are filling the needs of students at school and at home.

The Blair Backpack program has been a Feed My People (FMP) partner since 2014. When elementary students went back to school amid the pandemic this fall, the number of students needing food more than doubled. When the middle and high school counselors came asking for backpacks for their students too, Judy Peters and Gerda Anderson knew they needed to help provide food for a school food pantry. When one of the counselors shared his concern about a student they suspected was homeless, Judy and Gerda immediately made more food available so the students had what they needed. And so, the Blair School Pantry was created.

In 2021 Feeding American projects that 1 in 5 children will face food insecurity in FMP's 14-county service area, and so the work this program and others like it are doing is crucial to the health of children and youth in our local communities. When asked why it was important to expand the program during this difficult time, Judy simply said, "These kids need food."

Before the COVID-19 crisis began, data from Feeding America showed the lowest food insecurity rates in more than 20 years, but the current crisis has reversed these improvements. This is particularly troubling for our students in need. Experiencing persistent periods of insubstantial food affects a child's mental and physical health, which in turn affects their education and future opportunities.

"We have one family that utilizes the pantry on a weekly basis. This family has been homeless and recently found housing. Mom is a single mom trying to support three children and keep a roof over their head. The food pantry helps to provide the additional support so that her paycheck can pay the rent, and she can keep food in her children's bellies." - Holly, Longfellow Elementary School Food Pantry Coordinator

During the 2020-2021 school year, three new elementary school pantries in the Eau Claire School District were created to help meet the needs of students and their families at Flynn, Manz, and Locust Lane. All these schools continue to offer Weekend Kids' Meals, but a school pantry helps feed the whole family.

"When the pandemic hit, school staff across our service area tried to do more for families they knew were struggling, many for the first time. While most schools have backpack programs in place, a school pantry provides resources for the whole family in addition to the child. Both programs offer a crucial resource during a difficult time," shared Tami Syverson, FMP Program Specialist.

School pantries also allow for the flexibility to order perishable food like frozen ground beef, fresh produce, yogurt and cheese. Chippewa Falls High School started their pantry in 2017. The addition of a new freezer and cooler last year allows them to focus on healthy, fresh food for families.

"I had a student share with me that the pantry has made it possible for her to focus more on her schoolwork. Before, she felt she needed to get a job to help her family, but she was very concerned about adding these hours during the school year because she also helps care for her younger sister. Now she plans on working during the summer months. She and her mom are so grateful and so appreciative of the pantry."- Val, Memorial High School Food Pantry Coordinator

FMP is also partnered with middle and high school in Eau Claire and Chippewa Falls. School pantries at these higher grade levels have the added benefit of providing a discreet environment for older students who typically experience more peer pressure than students in younger grades.

Through Helping Hands in the Minong School District, students can receive a monthly 50-pound box of food for their family along with a weekly 4-pound backpack meal. For families who are working and are unable to pick it up, volunteers deliver the food to them.

"We all have a heart for these families and these kids," shared Elaine Bailey, Helping Hands Coordinator.

Just a couple of years ago, school pantries were considered a more novel approach. Now, spurred on by the increased needs of students and their families during the tumultuous past year, FMP is pleased to be working with so many passionate teachers and partner coordinators at schools in every grade level. Everyone needs food to succeed, and we are hopeful that the growing school pantry program will be one more resource for students and families struggling with food insecurity.

FMP is thankful for The United Way of the Greater Chippewa Valley's support of our school pantry programs.

This article was published in Feed My People's spring 2021 newsletter. Since its publish date, a new school pantry has started at Northstar Middle School in Eau Claire, called the Northstar Kitchen Cupboard. For a full list of all partner school pantries, visit our Find Food navigator and select 'School Pantry.'

Learning Curve