San Benito High School and the Community Food Bank of San Benito County are collaborating on a new food pantry to serve students on campus. The program has no official name yet but is expected serve about 800 students.
The “backpack program” from past school years has been retired, said food service coordinator Jim Lewis. Students would join the backpack program by talking privately to a teacher or guidance counselor, and any day they needed groceries they would receive a duffel bag full of them. In past years, the Food Bank provided the food to the backpack program.
“[Assistant principal] Claire Grissom mentioned how she wanted to do a backpack program, and we launched that,” Lewis said. “We got a good response, but I knew that there was potential for better and Claire agreed.”
The backpack program served about 100 students and their families. This new campus pantry is expected to serve up to 1,000 students. The Food Bank reached out, Grissom said, to instigate the program. Food Bank CEO Nancy Frusetta and store programs coordinator Fatima Vasquez have been integral to setting up the pantry.
Lewis said that the Food Bank is donating almost all the food the pantry will need. The agency “has been wonderful in their support of our efforts to open this service for our student community,” he said, “and it is our plan to work very closely with them on other projects related to the pantry.” The school cafeteria and private donors will also be asked to contribute to the pantry’s food supply.
Grissom said that the school wants to give options to students and their families.
“The first thing that goes away when families are in need is choice, of course,” Grissom said. “And we all have pride, and the biggest thing, I think, is to have that choice, and not just accept handouts or whatever comes our way. And by opening up a food pantry, you’re not just getting whatever’s handed to you in a bag, you’re actually picking out things that you’re gonna use and need.”
Grissom and Lewis want to meet students’ pressing needs, so the students can tend to other necessities like books, clothing and homework.
“A lot of times the reason our students don’t come to school is they don’t have clean clothes or they’re hungry, and so just for me to go out and find those resources for our families and for our students takes a lot of time and effort,” Grissom said. “My goal is to have every type of service here on our campus, for students to access.”
Lewis, who called his work at the Food Bank “one of the best experiences I ever had,” agreed.
“I wanted it to be something where the kids could go to a room, be given a bag, and you tell them, ‘Go shop. Get what it is that you need, or you want.’” He also said he wanted students to be able to say, “I can get this book, because I can go and get food here.”
The new pantry is meant to serve any student or family that desires food, Grissom said, from “a student who needs to pick up a loaf of bread, to a student who needs to pick up a weekend full of groceries.” She and Lewis even want the students to get snacks from the pantry. “If they’re hungry, they go grab something from the pantry, whatever that is, and they go on their way.”
For now the pantry will carry canned and dried foods, but Lewis said that soon students will be able to take perishables and fresh produce from a refrigerator. The pantry will also host cooking classes and “tastings” in the future, “to make it a beneficial learning experience” as well as a source of food.
Their goal, Lewis said, is to erase the stigma attached to taking food. “We’re trying to get people to understand that there is absolutely no shame in using this particular service, that there is a respectable need for it. And it is open to anyone, no questions asked.”
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