Pantries In Wake County Schools Fight Food Insecurity – And Give Students Choice

Dec 7, 2017

Wake County Commission Chair Jessica Holmes understands kids who grow up not always knowing where they’ll find their next meal.

“I know what it’s like at the end of the month to go to the refrigerator and there’s nothing in it,” said Holmes. “And just a few days later, after the first of the month, it’s pretty full.”

Holmes and her siblings were raised by her grandmother in rural Eastern North Carolina. They were used to getting help from others, although sometimes that “help” wasn’t so helpful.

“I remember receiving boxes of food and remember getting lots of peanut butter, and I don’t like peanut butter,” Holmes explains. 

She also remembers getting lots of pasta, which she couldn’t cook for herself. It also wasn’t something her grandmother would typically cook.

“So I remember getting all of this food from well-intentioned, well-meaning people and organizations that didn’t actually move the needle,” Holmes said.

Now, she’s hoping to bring more effective food pantries to kids in her county through an initiative that feeds students and their families in high-need schools.

Wake County School Pantries Help Feed Thousands

At Broughton High School, a new food pantry opened this school year in a large storage room near the high school gym. Tall shelves line the walls. They're filled with canned goods, breakfast cereal, and yes, pasta. But there’s more – a refrigerator with fresh fruit and vegetables, a coat rack with winter clothes, can openers to take home, and a cabinet full of hygiene products. It is one of 10 food pantries operated in Wake County Schools that is largely funded by Wake County.
 

The school food pantries have fresh fruit and vegetables from Ford's Produce in Raleigh.
Credit Liz Schlemmer

Much of the food is provided by the Inter-Faith Food Shuttle. The Raleigh-based nonprofit used earmarked county funds to equip the pantry. The Wake County Board of Commissioners provided funding to open five food pantries last school year and five more this fall. More than 1,000 students used the pantries at least once last year.

Commissioner Holmes spearheaded the project at its start. One day, Holmes was scrolling through her Facebook timeline, and saw a video about a food pantry located inside a school.

“And I thought, just in terms of practical ways to serve children, and to make sure that children aren’t hungry, why not put the food where they are?” Holmes said.

Advocates say many students who receive free breakfast and lunch at their public schools through the federal free and reduced price lunch program don’t always get enough to eat at home. That’s especially true over weekends and breaks. Food pantries that students can “shop” at school help meet that need.

There's no reason for us to have a $1.2 billion budget and have children in the school system that we support who are hungry. -Wake County Commission Chair Jessica Holmes

But spreading the idea in her community would take collaboration, and some convincing. Wake County is one of the wealthiest counties in North Carolina, a place where it might not be obvious that 1 in 3 students is on free or reduced price lunch. Feeding students wasn’t something the county had done in the past, but Holmes was passionate in her belief that if the need was there, the county could meet it.

“There’s no reason for us to have a $1.2 billion budget and have children in the school system that we support who are hungry,” Holmes said.

Holmes argued to add a new item to the county budget: $20,000 to set up food pantries inside of 10 middle and high schools. Teachers and parents at Broughton High School asked to be part of that program. They were already working to feed students.

 

An assortment of canned food the Inter-Faith Food Shuttle provides 10 high school food pantries in Wake County.
Credit Liz Schlemmer / WUNC

Betsy Graves is a dance teacher and the school’s food pantry coordinator. Last year, the way she helped feed students looked very different. Parents and students helped Graves package backpacks every week, and then she delivered them to students before their last class every Friday. It’s much like a program the local non-profit Inter-Faith Food Shuttle runs called Backpack Buddies, an initiative geared toward elementary students.

The backpacks were filled with non-perishable food. The program at Broughton High delivered a lot of food, but it meant asking parents for donations, filling the backpacks, storing them in Graves’ office, distributing them and then collecting the empty bags. During early dismissals or when there was no class on Friday, it got even more complicated.

Graves agrees with Commissioner Holmes that the shop-at-will pantry works better than a prepared bag of food.

“I think in high school, students want to make their own choices. They’re old enough to decide what they want, how much they want, and they’re old enough to decide if they want it,” Graves said.

The Wake County Schools’ Food Pantry Unofficial Code of Ethics

The Wake County school pantries have a few unofficial rules.  

Rule #1: You can take as much as you need.

“Sometimes they’ll take less and I’m like, 'You can have all that you need,' and they’ll gasp and then get more,” Graves chuckles. She says students want to share and make sure everyone has enough.
 

Breakfast items are stacked and ready for delivery to Broughton High School. Although Wake County Schools offers universal breakfast, Inter-Faith Food Shuttle program manager Julie Cox says students who didn't eat the night before may need more, or breakfast for the weekend.
Credit Liz Schlemmer / WUNC

Rule #2: Anyone can use them.

The Inter-Faith Food Shuttle’s program manager Julie Cox says she’s heard from school pantries in several counties that occasionally also help school staff. Graves prepared a package of food for pick-up by a staff member that had a family emergency just before Thanksgiving.  

“People can have an illness in their family, or a car accident, or are just in transition at that moment,” Graves explains.

Rule # 3: The pantries will always be discreet.

The Broughton High School pantry has its own entrance, and the students can pick out grocery bags of food before and after school. It’s meant to be inconspicuous.

“I try not to draw attention to them in the hall, but some of them will come up and be like, ‘Ms. Graves! Thank you!’  I’m like, ‘Of course!’” she laughs.

Graves is quick to point out that the food pantry took a huge collaboration between the Inter-Faith Food Shuttle, the Wake County School Board and the Wake County Commission.

Commissioner Holmes says these pantries live up to her dream.