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Food pantries at WCSD schools offer students choice, ownership

Food pantries at WCSD schools offer students choice, ownership

Every Friday during the last period of the day, Minerva Park Middle School opens Panther Pantry — a pop-up market stand where students can grab macaroni and cheese, pasta fixings, canned goods, snacks and other donated items for meals over the weekend.

With Panther Pantry, Minerva Park staff have taken the donated food and toiletries from W.A.R.M.’s Share Bac A Pac and Westerville Christian Church’s Friday Fare programs and displayed them on repurposed grocery store racks where students can explore offerings and fill bags on their own.

“We are delivering the food to students differently, offering them choice and allowing them to feel OK about picking food for themselves and their families,” school counselor Jill Huck said. “When you hear kids say, ‘For real, I get to pick?’ it gives them a bit of ownership and dignity.”

Minerva Park staff have taken an approach similar to the food pantries at the district’s high schools, where students have more autonomy in grabbing food items of their choice.

“We have found that this pantry-style or choice-style model has helped a lot in providing children with food while still breaking the stigma that comes along with asking for or needing assistance,” said Delaney Stephens, Childhood Nutrition Coordinator at W.A.R.M.

Through W.A.R.M.’s Share Bac A Pac program, schools receive meal kits that consist of two lunches, two breakfasts and snacks to feed children during the weekends, holidays and long breaks. 

After high school staff shared how students felt embarrassed about receiving the food in bags, W.A.R.M. started delivering food from the Share Bac A Pac program in bulk so schools could create their own pantries.

At Westerville South High School, students can grab snacks and other donated food items from the Wildcat Den, which is stationed outside of the library so it’s more accessible to students. Library helpers help keep the rack stocked with items from W.A.R.M. as well as food donated by students and community members.

Westerville Central High School keeps its food pantry stocked with daily grab and go snacks and meals at the school’s guidance office. They also distribute bags with donated food and snacks from W.A.R.M. and Westerville Christian Church each week to students in need.

Last week, W.A.R.M. distributed the equivalent of 636 bags to 22 schools — its largest number in the Share Bac A Pac program to date, Stephens said. The highest number of bags distributed last year was about 530.

“This just goes to show how much of a need there is for programs that are tailored to feeding the youth within our community,” she said. 

W.A.R.M. provides an average of 2,505 meals to Westerville families each week. In addition to the Share Bac A Pac program, W.A.R.M. operates an online Choice Market, which served 9,232 Westerville families from October 2022 to September 2023. 

Westerville Christian Church also provides food assistance to students and their families through its Friday Fare program. Each week, the church delivers Friday Fare bags to the schools, serving 125 families across the district. Each bag contains two meals, with each meal serving a family of four. 

At Minerva Park, counselors and food service staff created the Panther Pantry to provide an atmosphere where students felt welcomed and safe, Huck said. Once the pantry is open, students who have signed up for the Share Bac A Pac and Friday Fare programs are sent down to the Harmony Cafe. They are encouraged to fill grocery bags with an assortment of food, from jars of peanut butter to boxes of corn flakes. Once they’ve made their selections, they take their bags to their lockers and retrieve them when the final bell rings.

A sixth-grade student said she appreciates having access to a food pantry at school. Her Friday selections, which typically include beans, rice and snacks, help feed her family of seven throughout the week.

“I really like it,” she said. “It helps support my family.”

  • Minerva Park Middle School
  • Westerville Central High School
  • Westerville City Schools
  • Westerville South High School

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