A food pantry inside a school draws more people than a food pantry across from a school.
That’s what Second Harvest Foodbank of Southern Wisconsin found at Merrill Elementary School in Beloit. And it’s one reason a local nonprofit wants to put food pantries in 25 Madison Metropolitan School District schools over the next several years, starting with Glendale Elementary this fall. The goal is to open three every year.
“School pantries are so important, and they’re different because of where they’re located,” said Andrea Draeger, a child hunger specialist at Second Harvest Foodbank of Southern Wisconsin. “Many people feel more comfortable going to a school where their children are, and they know a few teachers or a principal.
“There’s a little bit less stigma,” she added. “A lot of schools are placed in a community, whether that’s in Madison in a neighborhood or out in more rural areas. It becomes a community hub.”
The school pantry program comes from Selfless Ambition, a nonprofit created two years ago by Madison365 co-founder Henry Sanders Jr. and local pastors Jon Anderson and Josh Miller.
Sanders knows a lot of principals and social workers, he said. Talking to them about their greatest needs inspired the project.
“The top need everyone was talking about was food,” Sanders said. “Every school I met with, food was always one of the things they talked about. Then it started going to, what’s the most efficient way to feed these students?”
Backpack programs, where volunteers pack bags full of nonperishables for students to take home over the weekend, didn’t go far enough, Sanders thought. Selfless Ambition wants to serve whole families. It also wants to give kids food like fresh produce and proteins that require refrigeration, which backpacks aren’t great for.
As of October 2017, 54 percent of MMSD students qualified for free or reduced lunch.
“We know it’s a heavy lift, but it’s so needed,” Sanders said. “You talk to principals, you know it has to be done.”
Second Harvest already runs three school-based pantries in its 16-county coverage area, specifically in Sparta, Adams-Friendship and Beloit. Thanks to a grant from Morgan Stanley, Second Harvest is planning to open five more in its coverage area.
There are a few school pantries in Madison already as well, run by other nonprofits in partnership with Second Harvest. The Falk Family Resource Center and Food Pantry at Falk Elementary opened in fall 2016. Food for Thought runs pantries in Sandburg and Mendota elementary schools, as well as East High. Students in La Follette High School's key club also opened a food pantry there.
Being in partnership with Second Harvest, rather than run by it, means that a separate nonprofit does fundraising, event planning and volunteer coordination. Selfless Ambition is a 501c(3).
“We know lots of people want to attack this problem of feeding kids who are food insecure,” said Kris Talezaar, communications manager at Second Harvest Foodbank. “Our goal is to work with them to make sure that we’re all coming together in order to make that happen.”
School pantries, Talezaar said, are “definitely becoming an area of growth.”
With Selfless Ambition’s pantries, each school will have different hours. Some may be open twice a week for four hours each day, Sanders said. Those hours of access will depend on internal staff, when the school wants to be open to visitors, what works best for the families being served and volunteer resources.
Sanders estimates that each pantry will cost $10,000 to open. Glendale Elementary is preparing for a fall opening, and he hopes to announce the next two soon — they’ve narrowed the options down to four possible sites.
“We have the intellectual path,” Sanders said. “We have people who know this really well. We know the nutritious aspect with Second Harvest. We have access with school district partnerships.
“The key is just making sure that we keep fundraising, letting people know food is a real issue for these students,” he added. “If these kids can’t eat, if they’re hungry, how can we expect them to study?”