School Pantries: Transforming Maryland One Community at a Time
From inner-city Baltimore to rural neighborhoods in Somerset and Garrett Counties, hunger regularly threatens the potential of 1 in 5 Maryland children — in classrooms, on the playgrounds, and at home.
The Maryland Food Bank is committed to meeting the immediate needs of food-insecure children, but we also realize that the issue of child hunger is inextricably connected to the stability of Maryland communities.
In an effort to build a stronger, more unified support system for the children we serve, the food bank has set out to partner with an institution that is central to every child’s life: the local school system.
Meeting the Need
The food bank’s School Pantry Program started out with just a handful of food pantries in Baltimore City, but after seeing immediate results, the program has grown rapidly to serve children and their families in neighborhoods across the state.
Now operating in nearly 260 schools statewide, our School Pantry Program provides hungry children with snacks during the school day and staple groceries to bring home to their families for the week, ensuring that students have access to food, both in school and out.
“Many of our students understand the financial struggles that their parents are facing,” noted Patricia Corkran, an 8th grade teacher at Wicomico Middle School. “Being able to help provide some food assistance for their family allows our students to feel empowered. With the help of the Maryland Food Bank, we are able to provide food to many of our students on a daily basis.”
In addition to enabling children to make a valuable contribution to their family’s well-being, school pantries break down the barriers of hunger in the classroom.
“When children are hungry, it is difficult to learn,” explained Gwendolyn Unoko, Community School Coordinator at Calvin Rodwell Elementary in Baltimore City. “You can tell the difference between students who eat and those who don’t. Students who come to school with growling stomachs feel lethargic and won’t perform as well as they could if they had food.”
Breaking the Cycle
The implications of child hunger create a cycle of instability and food insecurity, one generation after the next. It’s a cycle that must be broken at its earliest stages when children still have the opportunity to learn and excel in classrooms, unimpeded by hunger — and the Maryland Food Bank is up to the task.
“Marylanders need to care about childhood hunger, because hungry children can’t learn,” said Jeff Proulx, supervisor of Food and Nutrition Services for Washington County Public Schools (WCPS). “This results in an undereducated student population and the inability of children to reach their full potential. This has an economic impact for our future, where we will continue the chain of poverty.”
“Properly nourished children will become better educated adults with the potential of breaking the cycle of poverty,” Proulx added.
While the state provides Free and Reduced Meals (FARM) to many low-income children in the school system, many of those children return home to empty fridges and missed meals. And then there are the families that make just barely too much to qualify for FARM and other federal food assistance.
“Quite a few of our students receive FARM lunches, others are recipients of SNAP,” said Unoko. “But this doesn’t carry them and their families through the month. The food bank’s School Pantry Program does. The program is critical, essential. It removes barriers from the family and students’ success.”
In addition to the lifeline that school pantries offer food-insecure children, our sites have the capacity to transform schools into a destination not just for students, but for entire households.
Parents become increasingly engaged in the school community once they are able to identify the school as a trusted resource, explained Wendy Shaia, executive director of University of Maryland Social Work Community Outreach Service.
“When school becomes a place where a child and family can secure food, not only is that need met, but school also becomes a safe place, where the family recognizes that people care,” noted Shaia. “And then the family is more likely to disclose other issues which may get in the way of their children being able to learn.”
The connection between school pantries and parental involvement in students’ academic success is an important one. In fact, MLK Jr. Elementary School Principal Rachel Brunson believes that having a food pantry has made a big difference when it comes to her teachers getting more face time with parents in the community.
“We have been able to get parents more involved in coming to the school,” said Brunson. “They come to get the food, and while they’re here they’re able to have conversations with our teachers about their children.”
The staff at MLK Jr. Elementary has gone even further to establish the school as a resource for parents, offering additional services that may help food-insecure families build a more stable life.
“We have offered a pre-GED program to parents,” said Brunson. “We also provide information on health care and other benefits, and we’ve got a financial literacy initiative in the works.”
As the food bank works with schools to strengthen communities across the state, it’s become clear that the value of the School Pantry Program goes far beyond the food we are able to provide. By helping meet this most basic need, we are positioning schools as a trusted resource, removing obstacles to classroom learning, and establishing the framework for integrated community development.
Evolving Every Day
Child hunger is a moving target, and the food bank is committed to evolving with the changing needs to address challenges at the community level. This nimble approach is only possible because of the partnerships we’ve forged with schools and community organizations that stand unified against child hunger.
“The children we feed are our future… they are tomorrow’s leaders,” explained Mercedes Johnson, a drop-out prevention expert at Antietam Academy in Hagerstown. “Without Maryland Food Bank school pantries, some of our students would not have the tools necessary to learn. Washington County Public Schools would have no other choice but to try and sustain these programs on our own, and I am not sure we have the tools to achieve this goal.”
Over the last several years, the food bank has shouldered the cost of this program with the help of a few dedicated community partners.
As a result of the rapid expansion of the initiative, however, we need more community stakeholders to step up and help us ensure that MFB school pantries remain a fixed resource for food-insecure kids and communities statewide.
“Through our School Pantry Program, the Maryland Food Bank has built an infrastructure capable of providing millions of meals to children struggling with hunger,” said Maryland Food Bank President & CEO Beth Martino. “We know this program works, and we are committed to providing kids with the nutrition they need in schools and at home. But we cannot do it alone.”
Children and families across the state depend on MFB school pantries, but we need your support to secure this vital program’s future beyond the 2015-16 school year. Email Network Relations or call (410) 737-8282 for more information on how to get involved.
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