School food service staff and teachers on the frontline in their communities are aware of the prevalence and impact that hunger causes among students. One food service director knew that the number of students eligible for free and reduced meals had increased steadily over the past several years and, knowing her community, saw no signs of this decline. Nancy Younglove, the food service director at the North Rose-Wolcott School District in upstate NY, shared her concern and by the end of the day several teachers and staff were willing to work on addressing hunger in their school community.
With Nancy’s leadership, several years later, the North Rose-Wolcott School District (enrollment of 1,250 students) has three programs to address hunger - an in-school food pantry, a monthly mobile food pantry, and a backpack program that sends food home with elementary age students. This is a story of community building that started in the schools and expanded to involve local congregations, service clubs, businesses and employers, food manufacturers and brokers and the regional food bank. Now, Nancy Younglove, Food Service Director at North Rose-Wolcott School District, is working to ensure structures are in place to sustain these projects.
Once the needs were identified and it became clear that there was support and interest in addressing local hunger from school staff and leadership, Nancy’s next step was to think about space availability. The school district responded to this need as well. The district sponsors a monthly mobile food pantry with food supplied by Foodlink, the regional food bank in Rochester, NY. It is held in one of the school gymnasiums, a large enough space to host the up to 550 people who come to choose foods from each food group, to box up and take home. Anyone who lives in the school district can participate.
The school authorized storage space for the “Cougar Cupboard,” a food pantry named after the school mascot. The Cupboard operates on an as needed basis with calls received from parents and students during normal school hours. Enrolled students and their immediate family are eligible to participate. Boxes are prepared based on number of people in the family and any food allergies. Nancy and one other school staff person take the calls, complete a simple intake form, pack a box of food and arrange for pick up or delivery, using local volunteers if needed. Over 15,000 meals were provided last year.
Over a two year period, support grew for the Cougar Cupboard in this small community. Food comes from local employers, congregations, service clubs and food manufacturers. In addition, boxes are located prominently in each school building for donations from staff, parents, and students.
The operation of the mobile food pantry, Cougar Cupboard and the backpack program demand a significant crew of volunteer help. Key to the success and sustainability is the Cougar Cupboard Student Activity Club, a group of high school students and faculty advisor who stock shelves, solicit donations of food, plan and conduct fundraising events and promote the Cupboard. Other student labor comes from the sports teams. Per school policy any student involved in sports has to participate in community service. Many of the teams choose to work at the mobile food pantries on Saturday mornings.
Nancy explained that the backpack program was the first in this upstate NY area as well as the first working in collaboration with the regional food bank. The program is open to all families with children in Kindergarten through sixth grade through parent sign-up at the beginning of the school year. 150 students are participating, once a month receiving shelf stable nutritious food items for two breakfast and two lunch meals.
The Wolcott Elks Club (a local service club comprised of business people) chose childhood hunger as its focus, contacted Nancy since members knew about their other projects to address hunger, and donated funds needed to purchase foods for the backpack program. Club members committed to sorting foods, stuffing the backpacks each month, and contributing funds annually to ensure sustainability of the backpack program.
What does the future hold for these projects? Nancy is working with others to plan for the opening of Cougar Cupboard during the summer months, when kids don’t have the benefit of school meals. She is working to gain not-for-profit status for the Cupboard. Nancy is also planning a trip to Washington, DC to accept one of five awards given nationally by the School Nutrition Association – School Nutrition Hero. Accolades aside, the best reward would be elimination of hunger in the North Rose –Wolcott school community, with a close second being feedback from appreciative parents. One parent recently stated, “As a parent I care about what my kids are eating, that there is enough to eat and that it’s healthy. This is hard to do on $100 a week budget for groceries for the four of us. With help from Cougar Cupboard at least I am able to provide nutritious foods.”
For more information about mobile food pantries, school based food pantries, the backpack program and to locate the regional food bank closest to you: www.feedingamerica.org
Mary Lee Bourbeau, Cornell Cooperative Extension, Wayne County