Consider the macaroni and cheese, the cans of pineapples and diced peaches and the peanut butter food for thought.
A 16-year-old Putnam City West student, who asked not to be identified, said that before the food pantry opened at his high school, the hunger in his stomach spoke much louder than the teacher standing before him.
“You're really hungry and you want to go eat, so you don't pay attention to school,” he said. “Your stomach just hurts.”
A year ago, not long after she arrived, student counselor Lisa Wright started keeping peanut butter and crackers in her desk. Only they didn't stay in the drawer very long. Her snack turned out to be a student's meal.
Sure they were getting meals at school, but not at home. One in four children in Oklahoma is considered to be at risk of hunger, according to the Regional Food Bank of Oklahoma.
Wright said she started working with football coach John Jensen, who, along with fellow coaches, had established a small pantry for athletes after noticing a problem of hunger and injuries among players.
Individuals wanted to help, churches wanted to help and that all led to the Regional Food Bank starting the first pilot school pantry at Putnam City West in 2010-11, said Dawn Burroughs of the Regional Food Bank.
“This is another way to reach hungry children in our community and make sure that they have enough food to succeed in school,” Burroughs said.
Students who have expressed they are battling hunger can visit the pantry twice a month and select food, as well as personal hygiene items for their families.
“More than 300 people have benefitted from the pantry so far,” Wright said. “And sometimes it's different families each month. Sometimes families will have a good month and they don't need it and the next month they'll have a rough month.”
The Regional Food Bank already leads the Food for Kids Backpack Program that provides nutritious food for chronically hungry elementary schoolchildren over weekends and school holidays.
Now, the food bank is preparing to open additional school food pantries in the state and already has more than 20 secondary schools waiting to be added to the program, Burroughs said. Within those 20-plus schools on the list, there are about 1,500 students who will benefit from the school pantry.
The need is obvious, Burroughs added.
The key is getting grants and other financial assistance. Around $200 will provide one child with access to the food in the school pantry for an entire school year, she said.
Wright had been at an elementary school and had seen the success of the backpack program. She also witnessed the demand for the backpacks increasing rapidly. Then, last school year, a high school student shared a story that bothered and inspired Wright.
“One of the students and her siblings had one banana for she and her three siblings for a weekend,” Wright said. “It happened to be a three-day weekend. She split it four ways.”
Heidi Albrecht, a state Department of Human Services school-based social services worker who works with Putnam City West and other schools, said the program has opened the door to more than just the pantry.
After getting students something to eat, she looks for other ways to assist them and their families.
“Through this we were able to identify the kids that needed to be on free or reduced-priced meals and weren't for whatever reason,” Albrecht said. “I've delivered food to the house. I would go in and visit with mom. We could find out what other needs they had. There might have been needs for clothing, medical needs, utilities, just different situations.
“It has been amazing. It's like a domino effect.”
The 16-year-old who said he had a hard time focusing in class because of hunger said that is no longer a problem. He said it has not only helped him, but his siblings and his parents, including his mother, who has cancer.
“We only get a certain amount of food stamps and some times those run out before it's time to get more,” he said.
“Without the pantry, we'd probably be looking for food.
“This provides that food.”
How to Help
For more information about school food pantries or to make a donation, please contact the Regional Food Bank of Oklahoma: Gina Stone, 604-7104 or email firstname.lastname@example.org