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Sonia Spencer, community schools resource coordinator, (left) sets out items during the grand opening of the Mendota Elementary School food pantry in Madison. Also pictured is Lori Peppard, service area representive at Second Havest Foodbank. 

On Tuesday, Mendota Elementary School debuted an on-site food pantry as a part of its community schools program, and it's open to all Mendota families and north side residents.

The food pantry is staffed on Tuesdays and Fridays, from 2:30 p.m. to 5:30 p.m. and during Mendota’s monthly open schoolhouse event.

A half-dozen volunteers showed up to staff the food pantry on Tuesday. Several families took advantage of the bounty, which included perishable and non-perishable items.

In the last school year, Mendota’s community schools committee conducted a needs assessment to determine three focus areas. Mendota’s principal, Carlettra Stanford, said the food pantry idea came directly from the community’s call for more support for homeless and highly mobile families.

“One of the things that we found when we were interviewing parents was the lack of access to healthy and nutritional food,” she said. “I love the pantry that we are able to provide. We are going to have fresh fruits and vegetables, milk and meat. It is not just non-perishable items.”

Mendota’s other two focus areas are more out-of school activities for students and training and employment opportunities for families and working-age students.

Mendota Elementary School partnered with the Food For Thought Initiative, Second Harvest, and the Goodman Community Center on the food pantry project. Mendota joins Madison East High School, La Follette High School and Sandburg Elementary as Madison schools with on-site food pantries for students and families.

Lea Aschkenase is the founder of the Food for Thought Initiative and was on hand to assist families during the grand opening. She said she founded Food for Thought in honor of her mother, Thea Aschkenase, who survived the Holocaust and made it her mission to help families overcome food insecurity.

“When I was growing up, (my mother) would talk about what it felt like and what it meant for her to be hungry,” she said. “The school is a familiar setting. Parents come in and out anyway. We wanted to make (the pantry) easy to access and in a place that people can trust.”

Aronn Peterson manages the district’s community schools program. He said the pantry will alleviate some of the stress for north side families around hunger and lack of healthy, affordable food options in the neighborhood.

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“This is a great resource that is embedded in the school. It’s going to benefit everyone that uses it in this neighborhood,” he said. “It is a wonderful respite for a lot of folks.”

The food pantry is housed in Mendota’s Family Resource Center. Sonia Spencer, Mendota’s community school resource coordinator, said neighbors can use the space to learn more about community schools services, access the internet for job searches or meet with community partners.

“The thought of having the pantry there was meant to unite everything,” she said. “This is a space where families can feel welcomed and safe, and access all of the resources available at Mendota.”

“It’s a one-stop shop. It has everything you need,” Stanford said.